Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality. About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.
Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.
If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students. Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.
The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given. Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.
Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.
Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level. In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).
These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.
Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America. The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree. This should be unacceptable to a democracy. It should be unacceptable to higher education. How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll? Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.
Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it? Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them. Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college. But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient: Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.
If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives? How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us. Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.
The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services? The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.
Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress. Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.
What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth? And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is. It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.
Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented. It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need -- more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?
Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.
Universities, as seats of learning and powerhouses of research, are stepping up to assume a new role. In the wake of a global financial meltdown and consequent challenges to the fabric of many societies, universities are emerging as powerful catalysts and indeed drivers of socioeconomic growth – not only through research or technology transfer, but by assuming responsibility for preparing students for jobs in delivering today’s highly skilled workers and tomorrow’s innovators and leaders of industry.
That’s why the employability of our graduates needs to take center stage and why I applaud the Obama administration’s recent call to action in this regard. The emergence of new institutional rankings to compare the "value" delivered, such as graduate employment and earnings across institutions, means that employability has become "our job." And we need to take this responsibility seriously if we want to successfully compete in the global marketplace for higher education. Universities need to understand that we have a social duty and perhaps a moral one too, to help successfully launch our talented graduates into society.
Here in Britain, employability outcomes are already part of our world and feature heavily in the key performance indicators of British universities. Our Higher Education Statistics Agency collects and reports national data on our publicly funded institutions, including employment rate overall from each university and type of employment outcome. And while our American cousins are decades ahead in areas such as philanthropy and have helped our journey, Britain's experience of the employability agenda is one where we can perhaps return the favor. It's this spirit of sharing and exploring wider global education trends that moved me to share some insights into how the employability agenda is influencing behavior among our students and faculty, and in the administration team, too.
It’s clear in Britain that the move to show a return on investment through enhanced employment opportunities – the so-called "graduate premium" – is strongly correlated with the recent significant increase in student fees, or what would be considered tuition in the American context. This was a key part of a public policy shift, across successive UK governments, to recognize more overtly that graduates are beneficiaries of their education and as such should contribute to it directly, in turn reducing the public subsidy for higher education. The fees, covered by a public student loan, are repaid only once the graduate is earning a salary deemed appropriate for a graduate (approximately $35,000) and no payments are needed up-front.
A few things have happened as a consequence. The first, perhaps rather unexpected but of high value, was that we have seen a positive impact on the social inclusion agenda as more students from poorer backgrounds progress to university; analysis from the University and Colleges Acceptance Service (UCAS) indicates that compared with entry rates in 2011, the year before the introduction of higher tuition fees in England, 18-year-olds in disadvantaged areas in England were 12 percent more likely to enter in 2013. The second was, however, anticipated, and is the subject of this commentary, in that students are now much more savvy as education "consumers" and are fiercely attuned to understanding the job opportunities at the end of their degree.
As such, the student voice is being heard right at the heart of university administration and across the faculty. Newly introduced UK websites such as Unistats (similar to the College Scorecard) allow prospective students to directly compare courses and institutions. Of course, when first introduced around two years ago, such public comparison sites were disruptive – and this perhaps echoes the current disquiet in the United States as similar plans are rolled out across the pond. Britain’s "Key Information Set" (KIS) data, which populates the site, comprises the items of information which students have said they would find most useful when making informed choices about where to study. The "empowered" student wants to know what the likelihood is of getting a job after graduation in various fields, what type of job they may get (professional or non-professional), and what salary they could expect. Nationally, total employability and a new measure of professional versus non-professional employment are both used in national university league tables, which are used by students to pick institutions and by the government to award funds.
With this public interest in outcome measures, university presidents and the wider administration are acutely aware of the potential impact on reputation, and by extension, recruitment. There are risks to both if we do not continue to produce graduates who are highly employable, who can obtain graduate-level jobs and who can deliver on the investment they have made in their education through the "graduate premium" on earnings. Placing such key institutional risks to one side, the wider public policy agenda surely means that governments, industry and indeed society at large need to pay attention to employability given the economic and indeed social impact of skilled labor in the global market place. Research consistently shows that graduates are more likely to be employed than those who left education with lower qualifications. In 2013, there were 12 million graduates in Britain and the graduate employment rate stood at 87 percent; this compares to 83 percent employment rate for those with A levels – approximately equivalent to the high school diploma.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. A degree, once considered the passport to a graduate-level career, needs to now come in a total package – "graduate plus" – as employers seek well-rounded employees who are "work-ready" with clear evidence of both job-specific skills and, prized graduate attributes. Given the fact that more people are achieving graduate status, we need to help our students develop employability attributes and skills throughout their time at university while they study. This needs careful curriculum and indeed pedagogic innovation and stewardship, including partnerships with business, industry and the professions.
This is why at my own institution, Plymouth University in Britain, we embed employability throughout the curriculum from day one and we then continue to focus on developing the entrepreneurial skills of our students through academic courses as well as support, mentoring and networking opportunities. For example, curricular experiential learning projects across the university range from business (such as management students conducting consultancy work for local businesses in a program called Inspiring Futures) to health (dental, medical and optometry students are all trained in primary care settings, ensuring they have to develop communication skills with real patients in order to better understand their needs), to the whole institution, such as the Wonder Room consultancy, which brings together students from business, arts and science to pitch for, and undertake, live projects in the region.
We are also focusing on developing internships and placements for our students to enable them to enhance their resumes and gain real work-place experience. Our Plymouth Graduate Internship Program develops graduate-level internship positions with employers where recent graduates are given the opportunity to apply a range of skills, assume real responsibilities, make an impact and progress quickly from new graduate to successful professional. Last year alone, 40 percent of our students embarked on paid industry placements. I shared this fact on social media whilst at a conference in the U.S. earlier this year and was overwhelmed by the impact of the response stateside to something that we see here as very much just "business as usual."
For us, at Plymouth, a key factor in our success has been to establish our unique "students as partners" charter which, rather than a transactional relationship that places the student as a customer, we feel that the we take joint responsibility with our students for their educational outcomes. This means that as well as supporting employment opportunities, whether through internships or placements, we recognize that we are preparing graduates for jobs that don’t even exist yet and for a career that will be multidimensional and more akin to a career portfolio. And so, in line with our focus on enterprise, we foster an entrepreneurial mindset with our students so that they are set up to thrive as socially responsible, highly employable global citizens. Testament to this success has been national success as our students and student societies win major entrepreneurial and business competitions. We are also seeing more of our graduates progress to set up their own business ventures and also to engage in community volunteering work with a social purpose. So, for students, the employability metrics impact their decision-making as they make more informed decisions.
Our faculty have embraced the employability agenda through curriculum and pedagogic innovations and by creating partnerships with employers; this in turn, has served to connect us as a university to the society we serve, leading to research opportunities and live commissions for students and staff consultancy. And for the senior administrative team around the president’s table? Well, that’s an interesting one. Of course, we always had awareness of the demand for our programs, and an interest in student satisfaction – but there’s been a real shift in emphasis and we talk a lot more about the student experience which sits comfortably alongside other top table issues such as financial sustainability and risk. We are now more acutely aware that our brand is firmly aligned to the quality of our graduates and their market value, and that employability metrics are a clear proxy measure of our university standing. So jobs for our students now sit very much as one of our jobs, too.
So, dear American colleagues, if I may be so bold – I would say please embrace employability metrics as a powerful direction of travel. Be aware that public and private supporters of higher education are keenly interested to know more about the returns on their investment and on the role universities are playing now and can go on to play in driving economic and social inclusion. Universities can respond on their own terms in powerful and compelling ways to drive the narrative around employability. We should be clear that employability is very much part of the learning continuum, and learning – well, that is our job, isn’t it?
Wendy Purcell is president of Plymouth University, in Britain.
My earliest memories are of looking out from the campanile at the University of California at Berkeley below and the blue sky that surrounded the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Sproul Plaza and bongo drums, Telegraph Avenue and the Hare Krishna, Cody’s Books, Kip’s and Top Dog. These early memories were the result of the dreams and aspirations my parents had at the time.
Cal Berkeley had been the beacon of higher education that first brought my parents to this country in the early 1960s. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers had been unable to obtain college educations in Mexico, in part because of tradition and also due to the limitations at the time. But both of them were self-taught and made sure that their children attended local universities. My father had older siblings who had completed college by the time he came to the United States. My mother was the first to attend college in her family.
Back then the California dream came in three parts. We had the community colleges that served as the entryway for those who were not ready for a four-year university. There was the Cal State system that served as primarily master’s-level and undergraduate teaching institutions. Then there was the University of California.
Shortly after my parents arrived in California, they enrolled at the local community college. From there they transferred to Berkeley and eventually went on to obtain graduate degrees. My mother received her M.A. in comparative literature and my father eventually received a Ph.D. in the same field.
When the time to apply for college came, I had only two places in mind: Cal and Harvard. I heard early from Cal and was rejected from Harvard. So my choice was clear. In my mind, Cal was the place for me. It was home. But Cal was tough. I remember sitting in my Intro to Chem class with the other 750 students as we watched our professor on TVs that stood above us. Even though the classes were huge, faculty always taught them. And as we moved into upper-division courses these classes grew smaller and smaller to the point of eventually being able to ask our professors questions in groups as small as 50.
My wife, who was the first to go to college in her family, had followed a track to the one my parents used. She heard of college for the first time when she was in high school. When she finished high school, she enrolled at a local community college and transferred to UC Santa Cruz. Eventually, she ended up earning an M.A. in counseling psychology.
My daughter’s experience extended our UC experience even further. She was born in La Jolla just before I defended my Ph.D. dissertation at UC San Diego. Her earliest memories are of UC Santa Barbara, where I had my first job and she used to play with chickens at the Orfalea Children’s Center. She had visited Cal with us numerous times and ventured just south to the forest that surrounded UC Santa Cruz, my wife’s alma mater. Her early memories had spread beyond the campanile to encompass many more campuses.
When we first moved to Houston 10 years ago, the UC system was still embedded into the household fabric. One day my daughter came home and asked me whether we were Aggies or Longhorns. I quickly replied that we were Golden Bears and Banana Slugs. The next day she came back unsatisfied with my answer and asked again. It was a forced-choice question and so I chose Longhorns. UT was the Cal of Texas so it made sense.
But things have changed in the 30 or so years since my wife and I applied to college. My daughter received hundreds of brochures and emails from universities across the country, some of which I never knew existed. The list under consideration expanded to 11, including UT Austin and the University of Houston, but also some private and some Ivy League institutions.
Decision day arrived in three waves. First came UT and Houston, which were automatic due purely to her class rank. Then there was UCLA, a place made dear to my heart much later in life, when my father Guillermo Hernandez became a professor there. The final wave brought us good news: acceptance into Duke University, Davidson College and the University of Pennsylvania. All were excellent institutions with great reputations. But it also brought bad news: rejection from Cal.
My daughter and I visited all of the east coast schools where she had been accepted. Penn reminded me of home. It shared a strong commitment to diversity. Like Cal, it sat on the edge of a city with the inner city not far away. It even carries the name of the state and can be named with a single syllable. And like Cal, the multicultural way of life I had experienced during my childhood in California had penetrated its Ivy walls. You can eat Tortas at Penn and any other type of ethnic food you can dream up. But it is still private. Classes are smaller. The surroundings are beautiful and there is Ben sitting on campus. It was clear to me that her experiences would be radically different than the ones my parents, my wife and I had experienced in college.
My daughter’s decision came swiftly. She left the Golden Bears and Banana Slugs behind. She bypassed the Longhorns and Cougars completely. She has taken her experience of living in the most diverse city of the country with her. Along the way she will create a new identity, a native Californian Latina from Houston who will soon be a Penn student, something I never imagined was possible from the top of the campanile all those years ago.
But what of my California dream that had given all of us this opportunity? Is it dead? Over 70,000 applied to Cal and over 85,000 applied to UCLA this year. The acceptance rate has dropped at both places. The campuses are packed and more and more Californians are leaving the golden state to attend college in other places. This trend has reverberated across the entire county a topic of concern that the dean of admissions at Penn, Eric J. Furda, discussed with me during Quaker days.
The irony of it all was that my entire family was educated at what is arguably the best public university system in the world. My daughter could have followed in our footsteps. She was offered admission to UCLA but no financial aid. In other words, the entire out-of-state cost approximating that of private colleges was to be handled by us. A similar situation occurred at UT. Because Ivy League universities award grants and have a no-loans policy, Penn ended up costing a bit more than UT and much less than UCLA.
The story of our family is not unique. According to a recent book from Suzanne Mettler at Cornell University, college education may actually be reducing the opportunity to create a more level playing field. The ability both economically and socially to climb the academic ladder is becoming more and more restricted. This reality is difficult to reconcile for someone who grew up in the public university system and teaches at one as well. The American higher educational system has opened up doors for my family. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a daughter who will attend an Ivy League university.
However, I cannot help but wonder what the future of public university education holds for those who aspire to climb the academic ladder the way that my family has.
Arturo E. Hernandez is professor of psychology and director of the developmental cognitive neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston.
On April 22 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, upholding Michigan voters’ 2006 decision to ban race-based preferences in college admissions. Two immediate consequences of this decision are worth clarifying. First, and most obviously, race-based affirmative action remains prohibited at public universities in Michigan, a state whose population is over 14 percent black but whose flagship public school – the University of Michigan – serves a student body that is only 4 percent black. Second, less obvious and less often emphasized, the Supreme Court opted not to overturn the principle that racial diversity on a college campus is a compelling interest, as it yields unique educational benefits.
In legal terms, race-based affirmative action was left untouched by the Schuette decision. In practical terms, however, the decision could have far-reaching impacts. While there is still nothing unconstitutional about affirmative action, there is now nothing unconstitutional about banning it. That means statewide prohibitions in California, Washington, Arizona, and Nebraska will remain in place and additional challenges to race-conscious admissions are likely to surface. Moreover, the Court’s decision in the Michigan case follows a pair of well-publicized campaigns in other states designed to either chip away at remaining affirmative action policies or beat back efforts to revive those that have been outlawed.
These legal and political developments leave higher education leaders in a quandary. Most of us, from Chief Justice John Roberts to John Q. Public, agree racial diversity is a good thing, and worth pursuing. But pursuing it explicitly by considering race in admissions seems to be falling out of favor at the national level and facing voter opposition in some states.
Fortunately, promising alternatives are gaining traction. While it is self-evident that the best way to achieve racial diversity is to select on race, granting college applicants additional consideration on the basis of socioeconomic hardship may represent the next chapter of affirmative action. Class-based admissions preferences have two particularly attractive features. First, they can cushion the racial blow of an affirmative action ban by capitalizing on the overlap between race and socioeconomic status. Just as important, they can boost college access for disadvantaged students of all races who have overcome obstacles few other college applicants have faced.
Research on class-based affirmative action is still in its infancy, but the results thus far seem promising. In nine states where race-conscious policies have been banned and class-based alternatives have taken hold, racial diversity at selective colleges has rebounded after an initial drop. My own research at the University of Colorado demonstrated that class-based admissions considerations – when sufficiently nuanced and faithfully implemented – can maintain racial diversity and identify applicants who will perform much better in college than their raw academic credentials suggest. Promoting this sort of experimentation seems to be what the Supreme Court has in mind, as last month’s plurality decision reiterated that “universities can and should draw on the most promising aspects of race-neutral alternatives as they develop.”
It should also be emphasized that although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Schuette homed in on admissions decisions, solutions to the economic and racial divide in higher education need not maintain such a narrow focus. For example, the University of California system has developed robust outreach programs to connect with high-achieving low-income middle school students and encourage them to apply to selective universities (nationally, more than 100,000 such students every year do not apply to selective schools). Like class-based affirmative action, outreach is not a diversity panacea. But without talented low-income applicants, colleges will face a supply problem that no admissions solution – race-based or class-based – can overcome.
I ultimately support considering class and race jointly in admissions as the most obvious, efficient, and logical way to boost socioeconomic and racial diversity. But to the extent the Schuette ruling emboldens new state-level campaigns to ban traditional affirmative action, university leaders should begin investigating workable alternatives that suit their schools’ missions. Beginning that process now will serve selective colleges well as the political landscape continues to change.
Matthew Gaertner is a senior research scientist in the Center for College & Career Success at Pearson.