Leveling the playing field: A systemic approach to college success

Pell grants have been temporarily spared the federal cost-cutting ax, but the deck still looks stacked against low-income students seeking a college education. At one end of the higher education spectrum, students graduate from high school unready to meet the academic requirements of even community colleges and, once on campus, are often largely unsupported by the schools that enrolled them. At the other, low-income students who qualify for top-tier schools are still admitted at much lower rates than their wealthier students.

Leaving these students behind is not an option. Failing them will seal a bleak economic future for the entire nation, which will, in the coming decades, require an increasingly educated workforce to meet current and future economic demands. So it’s time to look at what levers we can use to squeeze shut the education gap that still plagues our nation’s students. Here’s a very quick run-down of possible approaches, with a few caveats (to be examined more in-depth in future blogs) noted:

  • Increase institutional accountability for graduation, not just enrollment: A great deal of attention and resources have been allocated to ensuring that low-income students gain access to and enroll in college. These efforts are critical to improving college completion rates, but alone, they are not enough. Unfortunately, every year, thousands of enrolled students drop out or fall behind in their studies; in fact, one 2009 study showed that, among students enrolled in four-year programs, an estimated 60 percent failed to complete their degrees within six year. Institutions must step up and take responsibility for this overall dismal six-year completion rate … which means that policy makers must, in turn, find a way to hold schools accountable not just for enrollment rates – the typical standard now in place – but for graduation rates. In Texas, this strategy is getting some play: Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes supports the idea of funding schools, at least in part, based on completion rates. In 2010, he attempted to change formula financing to address graduation rates instead of just enrollments. The effort failed, but Paredes continues to support the approach.

Graduation rates are, of course, a key measure of how well schools serve students. The main caveat is that in adjusting these formulas, policy makers must guard against unintended consequences such as lowered graduation standards, which some schools may implement to ensure continued access to critical funding. The key is that any such measures need to be balanced with other performance indicators.

Leaving these students behind is not an option.

  • Improve support for transition from high school to college College readiness is the current buzzword in K-12 education reform and it’s almost exclusively focused on academic preparation for college level curriculum. There’s no denying that remedial and developmental coursework creates added costs for students and institutions. Students needing remediation face a much steeper challenge of degree or certificate completion.

In addition to academic readiness efforts, students, particularly low-income first generation students struggle with the overall transition from campus acculturation, financial aid acumen and balancing family/home responsibilities with being a full-time college student. Higher education institutions and scholarship providers alike must make a balanced effort to help students develop both cognitive and non-cognitive skills to succeed in the classroom and successfully transition from life at home to life in a college environment.

  • Improve support for transfers from community college to four-year institutions. Among low-income students especially, inexpensive community colleges are frequently viewed as a stepping stone to a four-year institution – a practice that’s likely to grow as tuition expenses rise and financial aid diminishes. The College Board reports that 50 to 80 percent of community college students matriculate with a goal of transferring to a four-year institution. But in most cases, community college students get little if any guidance in understanding and meeting transfer requirements. As a result, many take classes that won’t count towards transfer or four-year graduation requirements.

Improving transfer rates from community college to four-year institutions is another key strategy in improving bachelor degree completion rates. Some states have done a great job of creating statewide articulation agreements. The North Carolina Comprehensive Matriculation Agreement has created a very clear process for student to identify what classes will transfer as electives and meet general education requirements. Unfortunately, it’s not so clear in other states. Models such as the North Carolina exist and can serve as guide to others in creating a comprehensive statewide initiative. Likewise, elite colleges like Amherst College in Massachusetts, have set an example for other institutions by actively recruiting transfer students from community colleges.

  • Adjust policies to encourage admission of qualified low-income students to top-ranked universities: The Amherst story is an important one, in no small part because it is so rare for elite schools to actively seek out and support low-income strivers. Both admissions rates and enrollments for these students remain low at elite schools. In spite of efforts to increase both, low-income students still trail well behind their wealthier peers. As Michael N. Bastedo, the lead author of a new study on the divide told Inside Higher Education, “The problem is, over time, the distance between academic credentials for wealthy students and low-income students is getting longer and longer…. They’re no longer seen as competitive, and that’s despite the fact that low-income students are rising in their own academic achievement.”

Current admission practices at top-tier universities need to be reviewed to ensure equity in measuring a student’s ability to succeed on campus. Some campuses have already started by eliminating or reducing the importance placed on standardized tests as a college readiness predictor. But that’s not enough when research shows that even highly qualified students who attend lower-tier schools tend to drop out at much higher rates than those who attend more challenging schools.

Those of us working to help ensure these students get a fair shake need to look for systemic ways to address the issue. None of the suggestions above are a complete solution, and each entails real trade-offs and risks that must be analyzed and weighed. But as a nation, we can’t simply stand by and watch while huge swaths of the population get systemically cut off from the chance to better their lives.