Equity and Access

Spending on instruction, and results.


January 7, 2016

Yale spends $117,473 per student on instruction and student services, plus another $12,856 for academic support, according to CollegeMeasures.org, It served 12,336 students in 2014 with a student-faculty ratio of 6:1. Roughly 75 percent of its classes have fewer than 20 students.

Ohio State University spends $18,870 per FTE student on instruction and student services and $1,969 for academic support. It serves 51,864 FTE students and has a student-faculty ratio is 18:1. Thirty percent of its classes have less than 20 students.

Per FTE student spending on instruction and student services at Cal State Long Beach is $7,735 plus another $1,507 on academic support. It serves 30,271 students with a student faculty ratio of 24: 1; 22 percent of classes are smaller than 20.

Higher education is among this society’s most stratified institutions, topped by a hierarchy of prestigious private research universities and elite liberal arts colleges that invest far greater resources in instruction, student services, and academic support than other institutions can afford. Indeed, there is an inverse relationship between institutional resources and the needs of the students, defined in terms of the students’ family income, high school preparation, class rank, average college board scores, and transfer status. And the situation is worsening. Over time, there has been growing inequality in resources per FTE student. To add to the irony, students at the most selective institutions pay a much lower proportion of the cost of their education.

Yet the most selective and best endowed private institutions serve only a fraction of the student universe. To meet society’s needs, public universities must offer a comparable education for a fraction of the cost. There is certainly a payoff from attending an elite private university in terms of graduation rates, acceptance into a prestigious graduate or professional school, and networking opportunities – although future earnings hinge more on choice of major and whether that major is aligned with the institution’s strengths.

At a time when the growth of undergraduate enrollment is coming primarily from lower-income students, when 40 percent of undergraduates work at least 30 hours a week, and traditionally-aged, full-time residential students constitute only about a third of college and university enrollees, the issue of equity in educational resources has never been more pressing. It is up to public universities, which enroll nearly three-quarters of college students, to devise cost efficient, cost effective strategies to improve student outcomes. The burden is especially great upon our most inclusive institutions, broad access public universities, which must meet multiple objectives simultaneously, including a laser-like approach to student success, addressing regional and community challenges, and partnering with local K-12 schools, community colleges, and businesses, all while focusing on costs.

Breaking through the iron triangle of access, affordability, and student success is among public higher education’s most intractable challenges. Current strategies -- ranging from summer bridge programs to mandatory freshman orientations, study skills classes, and supplemental instruction as well as more intrusive advising, degree mapping, and improved transfer policies – have had only a modest impact. And these strategies only rarely address one of the major challenges facing higher education: To make students aware of various career options and to help them chart a path into a particular field.

Too often, conflicting priorities discourage whole-hearted attention to student success, above all, the desire to move up the status hierarchy, which centers on more selective admissions, more facilities, more degree programs, and more departments. Currently, there is little incentive for individual faculty or departments to focus single-mindedly on mentoring, teaching, and student success.

A subsequent entry will discuss one of the University of Texas System’s strategies to raise graduation rates, especially among the student profiles that higher education has too often failed. This strategy breaks away from business as usual. Many of these students need a stronger connection between their field of study and their future career. They need a curriculum that is synergistic and that optimizes time to degree. They need easily accessed support services and coaches and course schedules that better meet the needs of non-traditional students. And each part of the innovation process must have clearly defined expenses.

Educational equity, I am convinced, depends on the success of this and other outside-the-box strategies.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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