Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Mary: I took spring break week off from my 9-5 job at Rutgers as well as my adjunct teaching and my night class, and I spent it reading, resting, and relaxing. But as soon as I got back, I noticed a lot of students missing for our first class. So I did a head count of the number of students who showed up -- 11 out of 22. Where was everybody? I waited an entire week -- three classes -- and the same 11 students showed up. I think to myself, "Can students actually believe that they can pass a class without showing up?" I log onto Web Advisor (Camden County College's administrative Web site) to see if they have dropped the course -- and only two of them have officially dropped! Then, as if by fate, I ran into one of the students who officially dropped my class and I asked her why she dropped. She replied that she has two young children and she was finding it too hard to arrive on campus by 9 a.m., so she withdrew and plans to take a late morning class in the fall. But this leaves unanswered questions about the students who are just not showing up. Are they not interested in finishing the course? Are they not interested in my class or school entirely? And most importantly, how can I get them back into my classroom?
Paula: That is so not my problem this semester! I started with 51 students in my Victorian class, and I was praying for it to shrink. One reason is the U.S. News & World Report college guide statistics. We lose points for classes over 50 -- even if there are only 51 in the class. So it was a good result the day I dropped to 49 in that class. Now I’m down to 47 and I am not the least bit interested in why the students dropped or in getting them back into English courses. If it’s not their cup of tea, that’s fine. It would be a different matter if it meant they might be dropping out of school entirely. With your teaching, so much hinges on keeping them in the class -- students’ futures are at stake. That’s the difference between our institutions but also the difference between our courses. Teaching literature is lovely. It opens up minds, and it pushes students outside their own perspectives in wonderful ways; I wouldn’t give it up. But teaching writing, especially teaching writing the way you do and where you do, can change lives.
Mary: Stop scaring me! That's what bothers me the most -- I know the magnitude of the importance of education in these students' lives, but I can't make them come to class. I know that some of their excuses are sometimes just that -- lame excuses. But for the other students, like the one I ran in to, their issues are real. I contacted the program director to ask her about my retention rate this semester and she advised me that the spring semester is problematic for retention. She also said that retention problems for Camden County students could be caused by numerous reasons, among them are that some of these students lack the support, commitment, or confidence to make college their first priority.
Paula: Well, I had a conversation with a student of mine today that could have been a conversation with a student of yours, I think. She’s a second-semester first-year student, living at home (itself highly unusual at Wheaton, where something like 95 percent of our students live on campus), working to help pay the family bills since her parents broke up and her dad lost his job. Whereas you worry about your students sticking it out at Camden County, I found myself advising this student to get the heck out of Wheaton. We don’t have the kind of financial resources that would allow us to give a student like this one the financial aid she’d need to stay here once her home support has fallen apart. I could just picture her trying to support her dad and brother on three or four summer jobs, all the while accumulating massive student loan debt. It does not make sense for her. I’m a huge believer in a liberal arts education, but I think she could get a very good liberal arts education at a place that could get her through more cheaply, and that needs to be a priority for her now. It’s different at your place, where the only option for someone like her would be to drop out entirely.
Mary: It's an ominous choice, though, isn't it? Maybe that explains why I still have 20 people on my roster and only 11 or 12 showing up to class -- they just can't bear the finality of dropping out. Or another explanation -- which I think may be more likely -- is that these students don't know how to withdraw or ask for help because, as the director of the program pointed out, they lack the necessary support. I don't think she's referring to financial support; it's more personal and familial for these students. Most of my students do not have parents or siblings who graduated college, and therefore they are in a totally different world with no assistance from family members.
Paula: That seems like a real issue -- you can make help available, but you can’t manufacture the conditions under which students can take advantage of it. A student whose family members are used to depending on each other, who has never sought help through an institutional structure, may not know how to do it. She might not know how to walk into the financial aid office or the counseling center or even the advising office and say, “I’m lost. My life is out of control, and I don’t know what to do about my classes.” And the longer they delay seeking help, the more things spiral out of control. And how can you, an adjunct instructor, know how to find them so they can get the help they need?
Mary: That brings me back to my issue with computers, or my students' lack of computers at home. After many of my students did not show up for a week after spring break, I used the e-mail addresses that were on the Web Advisor program to try to contact them and encourage them to come back to class. Out of the eight e-mails I sent out, six came back undeliverable. The two who actually received the e-mail opened it when they came back to class and logged into their e-mails from the classroom workstations! Obviously the e-mail approach doesn't work too well. Similarly, the phone numbers listed on the student handout sheets from the college are also outdated. The college does have a Student Support Service office, but they do not have the resources to track students down. If the students do come back to class, I work with them as much as possible to help them catch up. But the ones who don’t come back or seek help may not make it, and to me that is devastating. I think I’d better learn not to take this as a personal failure, or my teaching career may fizzle before it starts.
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty explored expectations of students.
The sources of unequal college opportunity in the United States run deep.
Finding effective ways to act is a matter of growing urgency and importance. There is every reason to think that success in higher education will become continually more critical for individual success in our economy and society. And a well-educated populace seems indispensable for a healthy and flourishing society in this new century, both in economic and in civic terms. For Americans to tolerate an educational system that poorly serves a significant segment of the population -- especially a segment disproportionately composed of the children of the economically disadvantaged and of persons of color -- is morally unacceptable in its own right, and it threatens to become a source of larger social failures in the decades ahead.
One of the big challenges to acting effectively is our knowledge that educational failures at any one life stage can often be traced back to earlier stages, all the way back to preschool and to home and community life in the earliest years. It is tempting then to argue that, for example, rather than "wasting time" on remediation in college, we should "fix" the high schools and get it right the first time, and likewise that the high schools can't do much if their students have not learned to read and calculate in elementary school, and so on. The fundamentally sound idea of success building on success has many analysts to argue, quite persuasively, for the importance of investments in high-quality daycare and preschool education. It's possible abstractly to imagine a sort of perfectly ordered world in which great preschools were followed by strong elementary schools, then high schools, and on to excellent colleges from which in 20 or 25 years a much better and more equally educated generation of young adults would emerge -- just start with the next generation of newborns and work from there.
Yet, while it is a good idea to keep that kind of long-run vision before us as we go about the current business of reform, it is obviously unacceptable to simply write off all the young people living right now for whom improved preschool simply comes too late. Even if that were somehow tolerable, a second problem bedevils this approach as well. There is considerable evidence that one of the human activities that improves with better education is parenting, and there is evidence that the quality and character of home life in a child's early years importantly influence his or her later educational success. Thus investing now in the education of future parents should be part of any comprehensive long-run strategy for improving educational opportunity and outcomes in future generations. After Bill Bowen and Derek Bok published their powerful study, The Shape of the River, showing the positive effects of affirmative action in college admissions, some critics said that the real challenge was to address the failings of the public schools, not make up for those failings through affirmative action in college. As Bill Bowen said at the time: "We do not have to choose; we have two hands."
So, rather than waiting for educational reform at earlier ages to somehow overcome inequalities, we think that colleges, and those who shape government policies toward college education, need to find effective ways to act now in the face of the very large inequalities in college access and opportunity they currently face.
What colleges can reasonably do depends very heavily on how they are situated. While a minority of college students attend colleges and universities that select enrollees from a broad pool of applicants, the majority are at places where all or most of the students who apply are admitted. It is the former group that can practice racial affirmative action in admissions and may also consider "economic" affirmative action -- the "thumb on the scale" advocated in Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Even within that selective group only a relative handful are likely to have adequate resources to expand their admission of low-income applicants significantly. (Even among selective colleges, the majority turn down some otherwise qualified applicants because the colleges want to avoid the financial aid costs of their enrollment.)
It is our strong sense that those selective colleges and universities with the capacity to enroll more low-income students should do so, a step made all the more important by the fact that these institutions are widely seen as America's higher education leaders. There is a large pool of low-income students who have the level of academic preparation needed for success at these places.
We do not at all wish to imply that those institutions that lack the resources or the selectivity to practice "economic affirmative action" are "off the hook" in regard to addressing the needs of low-income students. Indeed, it is at these less affluent and less selective colleges and universities that most low-income students can be found. A major contribution these institutions can make is to find ways to help more of their disadvantaged students make a success of their college efforts. We know that low-income students who start college are less likely than others to complete their studies. This outcome is caused by some combination of inadequate academic preparation, financial shortfalls, and personal and cultural difficulties that colleges need to understand better and devise more effective ways to address. There is also a need to understand when and how remediation works for students in college and how to make it work better.
Colleges should also be "on the hook" for working more effectively with secondary school systems to make sure that schools understand and communicate to their students what kind of preparation is needed for college success. What it takes to graduate from high school or to be admitted to college is only distantly related to the kind of preparation needed to succeed in a college environment. Aligning standards and then, importantly, offering educational programs that will enable students to meet those standards are much needed.
We hear heartening evidence that at least a good many colleges take the problem of improving low-income access and success seriously and want to devise ways to address the challenges they face. At the same time, there are severe limits on what individual colleges, acting separately, can do to address the underlying problems. Some such challenges can be tackled by colleges themselves acting collectively through their associations and consortia. Collective efforts to communicate with high school students and their families about preparing for college and about how to pay for it, like the American Council on Education's "College Is Possible" campaign, are examples. Some observers have argued that there is potential for making these efforts substantially more effective by basing them on a more systematic study of what families know and how they learn about colleges." It would also be desirable for colleges to do more to cooperate in putting their financial aid dollars where they would do the most good, although that probably cannot be done without affording the colleges some protection from antitrust prosecution.
A major constraint on what both individual colleges and cooperating groups of colleges can do about low-income access is money. The influence of family resources on college-going decisions is exerted through multiple channels. Possibly the biggest influence is through the fact that families with less income and wealth are not able to devote as many educational resources to their children from an early age as more affluent families can, with the result that their children are on average less well prepared academically for college. Low-income families are also often less well equipped to navigate the complex and disjointed systems by which financial aid for college is provided, even as they are more dependent on its assistance.
But there is also reason to believe that money still matters in college access in the straightforward sense that low-income families struggle to pay the bills. Studies that attempt to control for the influence of factors like academic preparation and parental education still find that money matters significantly in influencing college attendance. Federal loan limits for undergraduates have not been raised in over a decade, and the value of the maximum Pell Grant is substantially lower now as a fraction of college tuition than it was in the mid-1970s. Particularly for students whose best educational option is a four-year college or university away from home, financial constraints can be very real. Moreover, it is very hard, given the way financial aid works now, for a family to look ahead when their child is 10 or 13 years old and see with any clarity how college will be paid for. This fact can be a serious discouragement to making the key choices in middle school and high school that will make success in college feasible.
These are not problems that colleges and universities, public or private, can overcome on their own. They must be addressed through public policy, principally at state and federal levels. Some of what is needed might be accomplished through more purposeful use of existing public resources. A significant fraction of state government subsidies, for example, goes to reduce the tuition paid by affluent families who could readily pay more. But there is also a case for expanding federal and state commitments to helping low-income people finance their college education.
This doesn't have to mean simply putting more money into existing programs like Pell. There is much to be said for exploring innovative policies that will involve a simpler, more understandable delivery of benefits, that will encourage advance planning and solid academic preparation in high school, and that will have a broader political base than the narrowly targeted Pell program.
The good news is that there is plenty of work to go around. Well-endowed selective colleges and universities can exert a leading role by expanding their representation of disadvantaged students. The broad-access institutions that now enroll most low-income students can develop programs to foster their success in college and work with high schools to send clearer messages about what is needed for academic success in college. And policymakers in state and federal governments can work to use existing resources more effectively while also making commitments to expanded and improved programs to make a good college experience a realistic option for all who qualify. Do what you can with what you have where you are.
Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro
Michael S. McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College. Morton Owen Schapiro is president of Williams College. They are the editors of College Access: Opportunity or Privilege?, a volume of essays being released today by the College Board, and from which this essay is adapted.
Every December, highly educated young people load up their Toyotas and hop on airplanes to spend the holidays with their families. This year was no exception. For a week or two, libraries and laboratories across the country went quiet. The lights went off in Manhattan editorial offices and advertising agencies; Washington’s government bureaucracies ground to a halt; and Northern California’s venture capital firms and tech companies stopped making deals. At the same time, business picked up at small-town bars and breakfast joints across the country, as all of those academics, editors, lawyers, and engineers reconnected with their families and scattered high school classmates.
I used to think of the holiday season -- with its cloying carols, crowded sidewalks, and inevitable sugar headaches -- as an annual nightmare. But these days, my view of the season has shifted. While I’m still not a fan, I’ve come to appreciate how Christmas temporarily desegregates the American population.
That’s a statement that needs some explanation. “Segregation” is intimately tied to race in American vocabulary, but race is not the only way in which America is segregated. In fact, over the last several decades, residential racial segregation -- the tendency of African-American and white families to live in the same neighborhood -- has declined substantially. That doesn’t mean that spatial inequalities have disappeared. Despite the progress that we’ve made, many cities remain highly racially segregated. Despite the progress that we’ve made on racial desegregation, economic segregation -- poor and affluent families’ propensity to live near one another -- hasn’t budged. Furthermore, during the last few decades a whole new form of residential segregation has emerged. I call it educational segregation: College graduates have become increasingly clustered in a handful of places, while large swathes of America experience a long, drawn-out brain drain.
This is the form of segregation that I have in mind when I say that the holidays temporarily desegregate the American population. Every December, holiday cheer pushes young college graduates out of America’s creative cities and college towns and back to their hometowns across the country.
Much of my research has been dedicated to documenting educational segregation. My interest has autobiographical roots. I was born and raised in Madison County, Nebraska (where 17 percent of adults had a B.A. or higher degree in 2000). Like most of my friends, I always knew that success meant leaving town, and that’s exactly what I did. I went to college in central Connecticut (where 34 percent of adults held B.A.'s) and graduate school in Manhattan (the 13th most highly educated county in the U.S., with a B.A. concentration of 49 percent). My current gig has me living in a faculty ghetto in central New Jersey (where each and every one of my neighbors has a postgraduate degree). But I’m a social scientist, not a memoirist, and I’m primarily interested in the ways in which educational segregation shapes inequality and opportunity in American life. My research suggests that educationally selective migration is fundamentally altering America’s social geography, and that this change has consequences that we are only beginning to understand.
Some of these consequences are positive. Economic research provides strong evidence to suggest that the spatial concentration of human capital stimulates economic growth. As anybody who has ever had a successful collaboration with the colleague down the hall can tell you, causal conversation over the coffee machine can often lead to real breakthroughs. Turns out, the same thing happens in regional economics. When smart people cluster together, innovation occurs, productivity rises, and growth occurs. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Thanks to educational segregation, the cities and college towns in which many of us live have become bright spots in the American economy. And even those of us who live outside these bright spots benefit to some extent from advances that take place when highly educated people rub shoulders.
But educational segregation is a zero-sum game. For every booming human capital hub, there are dozens of brain drain communities, and for these communities educational segregation can be disastrous. While brain drain is not exclusively a rural phenomenon, the picture is particularly bleak for rural America. In any given year, more than 6 percent of America’s non-metropolitan B.A. holders migrate to a metropolitan area. Economic growth has stalled in these brain drain communities. In the worst cases, communities are left with insufficient medical care and limited educational opportunities, as they find themselves unable to replace retiring small-town doctors and teachers. There’s no reason why college graduates need to be distributed equally across the United States. But deepening educational segregation closes off opportunities for people born into brain drain communities, creating new social and economic inequalities.
So how do we break the vicious cycle of educational segregation or at least mitigate its worse consequences? I’m generally a big believer in the transformative power of education, but for all the benefits that college-goers get from higher education, state investments in higher education don’t do much to keep talent in brain drain communities. Since human capital is mobile, places can’t educate their way out of educational segregation. The nation’s two most highly educated states -- Connecticut and Massachusetts -- rank 33th and 48th respectively on per capita higher education funding. And all but two of the of the 10 states that spent the most per capita on higher education in the early 1990s experienced net brain drain between 1990 and 2000. In a sense, by putting money into public higher education, my home state of Nebraska is underwriting the out-migration of its most talented young people and subsidizing economic growth in the places they end up.
Economist Richard Florida advocates a “creative cities” approach, urging communities on the losing end of educational segregation to cultivate the cultural amenities and social tolerance that highly educated youth value. This advice turns the common-sense logic of regional economic planning on its head. While planners have traditionally focused on getting businesses to locate in their communities, reasoning that jobs will attract workers; Florida has been convincing planners to focus their attention on attracting the highly-educated “creative class”, arguing that these workers make jobs for themselves and others. Based on the Florida model, the city of Memphis is busily organizing arts festivals and rezoning neighborhoods to allow sidewalk cafes in an attempt to attract highly educated migrants and stimulate economic growth. This effort is almost certainly better than nothing, but my research suggests that neither amenities nor jobs attract college graduates to human capital hubs. The big lure is the presence of other college graduates. Furthermore, even if Memphis does manage to make itself a human capital hub, chances are it’ll be snatching its college graduates from the surrounding countryside, not New York, Washington, or Raleigh-Durham. Building new creative cities may only aggravate educational segregation overall.
A third approach leverages student financial aid incentives to slow brain drain. With college tuition growing at a rate that outpaces both inflation and the availability of financial aid, and student loan programs rapidly replacing grant programs, several states successfully used student debt relief programs to fill local occupational shortages. But recently, policy-makers have become more ambitious with these plans. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has proposed a merit-based scholarship program that would give high-achieving Indiana high school graduates $20,000 a year for tuition and living expenses, as long as they promised to stay in the state for three years after graduation. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), meanwhile, thinks that slowing brain drain is the federal government’s job. Under his New Homestead Act, the government would pay off college loans, provide tax credits, mortgage assistance, and business start-up funds for people who settle in depopulating rural counties.
There’s definitely an element of pork-barrel politics to Dorgan’s New Homestead Act. But short of declaring every day Christmas, it strikes me as our best available approach to slowing educational segregation. The problems associated with uneven talent flows are best addressed at the federal level, rather than the state level. Brain drain states’ educational investments subsidize growth in brain gain states, so it seems only fair that brain drain communities should help solve the problems that educational segregation creates. The New Homestead Act’s incentives probably aren’t enough to reverse educational segregation trends. (After all, how many 22-year-olds decide where to live based on their marginal income tax rate?) But for young adults who are committed to staying their hometowns, but wonder what good a college education can do them there, the New Homestead Act would be a boon, likely raising educational attainment rates and helping brain drain communities hold onto local talent. If we care about equality of opportunity in America, those are both important things to do.
Thurston Domina is a research associate at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in sociology last year from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is currently hunting for a tenure track job in a place with plenty of sidewalk cafes.Â
All Texas parents keep a watchful eye on their progeny's performance in high school, knowing that a "top 10 percent" class rank guarantees admission to the state college of their choice. There are variants in other states, but this is the best known. Acclaimed by many for opening doors to higher education for disadvantaged students at the state's most prestigious university, the program is now the target of sharp criticism from the University of Texas at Austin.
The state's flagship university wants to bury the program. I come to praise it -- and to argue that it may be a model deserving more attention as more states face referenda that may lead to the abolition of affirmative action and could hinder minority enrollments at top public universities.
UT's leaders claim that the Austin campus has become overenrolled if not overrun with "top 10 percent" students -- but data from fall 2006 show a different story. And nationally, flagship university leaders fear that such programs take away too much control over whom they admit to their classes. At Austin, first-time freshmen indeed increased by 509 to 7,421, but the figure included new entrants as well as freshmen who entered in the summer and continued into the fall. Among incoming students from Texas high schools, about 71 percent were admitted under the 10 Percent Plan, compared with 69 percent in fall 2005.
The quantity at Austin appears manageable, but what about the quality? All available data indicate that students admitted under the statewide 10 Percent Plan do better than their peers in grade point average and in college retention. That's to be expected -- since students who do well in high school have a proclivity to do well in college, especially when UT and other universities make concerted efforts to recruit them and to provide them with financial aid.
Final proof of the 10 Percent Plan's success is found in data on ethnicity. At UT-Austin, first-time freshman enrollment included 54.3 percent white, 0.5 percent American Indian, 5.2 percent African American, 17.9 percent Asian American, 18.7 percent Hispanic and 3.4 percent foreign. Amid the turbulence that attended major court cases ( Hopwood from the Fifth Circuit and Grutter from the U.S. Supreme Court), the UT campus remains commendably populated by people from all economic classes and all corners of the state. But the possibility of a Texas anti-affirmative action referendum looms.
Credit for these outcomes properly goes to the late Rep. Irma Rangel, who led the House Higher Education Committee that crafted the 10 Percent Plan. For nearly 18 months, I was privileged to work in her shadow as we sought race-neutral ways to assist colleges that genuinely wished to recruit students from every precinct in the state. After sifting through dozens of options, we opted for something we called the frog-pond effect. That is, we determined that students who were "big frogs" in high school were likely to do well in college -- regardless of the size of the frog pond that spawned them. Indeed, rank-in-class is a proven marker of excellence, and many scholarships and other honors traditionally flow from this measure of excellence.
The plan that emerged in committee improved upon the California model that requires many markers, especially standardized tests on which some groups on average perform better than do others, beyond a simple rank-in-class threshold. In part, it was based on research that showed a handful of largely suburban high schools generated many of the students admitted to the state's flagship universities, and at UT-Austin in particular. All were excellent high schools, to be sure, but we identified many other good high schools that had never sent a graduate to a flagship college in Texas. The 10 Percent Plan effectively got these schools "into the game" of higher education -- much like the Olympic Games permits every country to enter three athletes in any given event. The three-athlete limit might chafe Kenya in distance running and chap the United States in swimming, but there is global agreement that the system is fair.
Texas legislators can lend a sympathetic ear to UT-Austin's complaints, but the problem is that the 10 Percent Plan works only as it is, when its provisions are automatic and clear-cut. The benchmark could be set at a higher point for this one campus -- say, the top 7 percent -- but such an adjustment would only delay "filling up" the university at some point down the road. UT-Austin says its far-reaching campus plans call for improving student-teacher ratios by hiring more faculty and reducing the number of students. But these goals could be achieved by limiting transfer students or by hiring more professors, rather than by constraining the size of admitted classes.
There may be other options that UT-Austin could pursue, but if the core problem is "too many excellent students," only two plausible solutions exist: other Texas public institutions need to step up and aggressively recruit these students, and the state needs to create more attractive flagships. The results of that second option are readily visible in California, where virtually all UC campuses except the fledgling Merced campus are awash in applications from highly accomplished students. Just as not every qualified student in California can go to Berkeley, perhaps not every qualified student can plan on attending UT-Austin.
Institutions such as the University of Virginia or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill struggle to recruit rural high school graduates and first generation students. Some public universities have followed the lead of guaranteeing full financial aid and not simply reimbursable loans, so as to diversify their entering classes. In most states, there are racial housing patterns that make recruiting from a wider swath of high schools efficacious. The deeply ingrained mythology of graduating first in one's class is an extreme version of percentage plans, but virtually every college tracks and recruits such high-achieving frogs.
Instead of waiting for Ward Connerly to stir the pot, and then to be left stunned when he wins a referendum, states might be well advised to consider a system like this, which is consistent with long-standing flagship traditions in many cases. Why don't Connerly and the Center for Individual Rights and such others lead a similar charge against legacy programs in public colleges, a demonstrably and predominantly white policy?
And as Texas legislators mull changes to the 10 Percent Plan to accommodate UT-Austin, they should recognize how some state campuses -- most notably Texas A&M University -- stubbornly resist using the affirmative-action tools allowed by the Supreme Court. By declining to reinstate racial admissions criteria in the wake of the Grutter decision, Texas A&M lost any standing to be "let off the hook" from the requirements of the 10 Percent Plan. As my dear friend Representative Rangel might say, any university that shirks its obligations to qualified students deserves to be scolded -- or worse.
Michael A. Olivas
Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center, where he teaches immigration law and higher education law. He served as a consultant to Rep. Irma Rangel in drafting the Top 10 Percent Plan and the companion graduate school admissions legislation.
As some 17 million college students begin fall semester, "access" is front and center on people's minds. Countless reports and commentaries argue that spiraling tuition is making college less affordable, particularly citing costs in our public universities, and therefore limiting access for qualified applicants. Affordability is an important concern, to be sure.
But with so much attention drawn to college access or, more accurately, financial access, a broader, more insidious problem -- let's call it educational access -- lingers in the shadows, garnering less discussion. Preserving our nation's civic and economic health requires us to recognize, and then address, this hidden crisis.
The cost of college is significant for many students and families. Education officials understand this, and are working to make sufficient aid available. Even so, for the vast majority of students, the sacrifice will pay off handsomely. Notwithstanding the substantial societal benefits of an educated citizenry, college graduates themselves will earn 70 percent more, on average, than high school graduates, and generally enjoy better health outcomes and connections to supportive communities.
Despite these benefits, far too many students graduate high school unprepared for higher education, and a startling number simply don't graduate from high school at all. For these students, financial affordability is not a genuine barrier to college; no amount of financial aid and remedial help will make up for the inadequacy of the skills and experience needed to benefit fully from postsecondary education.
How do we know the system is in bad repair? High school on-time graduation rates -- hovering below 70 percent nationwide -- have been stagnant for two decades. And according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, for every 100 young people who enter 9th grade, less than one-fifth will receive either an associate or bachelor's degree within 150 percent of the expected time.
Numbers are far worse for students from underrepresented minorities. Only 7 percent of Hispanic men and 15 percent of African-American men earn a college degree by age 29, as compared to the national average of over 28 percent. Today, only 8 percent of all students from families in the bottom quarter of income will ever get a four-year degree, whereas the top quartile sees a 75 percent college graduation rate.
Aside from the cost to individuals, it's not clear we have begun to acknowledge the societal cost of this crisis, or appreciate how the United States, already short on the knowledge workers that drive today's economy, will compete globally when roughly one-third of our students don't even earn a traditional high school diploma. We must, because if the trend persists, our national prosperity is in peril.
Ideally, college should be part of an education continuum, a "pipeline" that begins in childhood. In many of our nation's public schools, however, the pipeline is broken. Success will come only when all education sectors advance a common mission to prepare young people for citizenship and economic success, and then build a seamless pipeline to take them there.
One piece of a solution is for institutions of higher education -- especially our public universities, where service to the community is part of the mission -- to work with educators to strengthen the pre-K-16 pipeline. There are, as well, important roles for the private sector and community organizations. A positive first step, for example, could be a landmark national summit that convenes leaders from all of these groups to define the crisis and agree on action steps for addressing it.
In America, public education is intended to be the great leveler. But that promise remains far from fulfilled, especially for some of our most vulnerable populations. Considering the importance of education to economic success in the 21st century, our country needs urgent attention to this pervasive issue.
If an affliction were as widespread in our society as the persistence of low educational attainment, public health officials would consider it an epidemic. Collectively, we would call on communities, government agencies, academia, and the private sector to collaborate on a solution to the crisis. But the education deficit is widespread and defies simple solutions. "Casualties" of this epidemic rarely have a voice in the public debate. A recent report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation termed this the "silent epidemic."
Once we acknowledge the size and impact of the epidemic, though, we cannot remain silent. It is impossible to maintain the economic and civic health of our society while we tolerate the creation of educational haves and have-nots. By making educational access to college every bit as important as financial access, our society has the potential, and the moral obligation, to fulfill the promise of a quality education for all.
John B. Simpson
John B. Simpson is president of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and is a member of Gov. Eliot Spitzer's New York State Commission on Higher Education.
What an opportunity, as the world rediscovers its excitement about the promise of America with the arrival of President Obama. The economic and political upheaval of a most trying 2008 has given way to 2009, and we are busy asking how each of us can contribute to a revitalization of our economy and to a repositioning of America's place in the world. The need and hope for change are as plentiful and sincere as the desire to provide advice, a desire that we will not resist. Nor will we resist the notion that lasting answers to complex social problems have their roots in a higher education system that has been, and can continue to be, the best in the world.
While Joe the Plumber received much attention in the run-up to the election, let's not forget Mauricio the Cab Driver. An immigrant from El Salvador, Mauricio has spent the past 35 years running Los Angeles travelers to and from the airport to support his mother in El Salvador and to educate his four children through the public schools of Los Angeles and the community colleges of California. He will tell you that only here could his family have been changed forever in the way it has.
Will future Mauricios be forced to abandon that dream? That was the question laid out at the inaugural conference of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California this past August, and it is the subject of the report of the Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century that was released by the College Board in November.
From the resources gathered at the conference and in the task force, here is what we know.
Many more Mauricios are here and many more are coming.
Their children are born here, attend school here, and in fact represent the largest growth in school-aged children.
The number of college-bound students will decline precipitously in many parts of the nation over the next decade and any increase will be among students without the preparation or experience we have become accustomed to seeing in our classrooms.
The so-called pipeline of such students into higher education swells from kindergarten until the ninth grade and then slows to a trickle by the end of the senior year.
Disappointingly low college completion rates could end the long-term pattern of successive generations being more likely to have college degrees.
We know, therefore, that America is experiencing an educational as well as an economic meltdown. In fact, successfully addressing the latter depends heavily on solving the former. The pressing question is, what can be done to face the educational challenges?
Restoring public trust in education is as important as in other industries. Is it true that higher education has lost its rightful focus, that self-interested colleges and universities are more focused on ratings wars and the like than in promoting the public good? We should remember that many of the resources that fund higher education are taxpayer-based, as public and private colleges and universities rely heavily on a combination of federal research support, state operating subsidies, and endowments fueled by the lack of taxes on capital gains and the tax-deductibility of gifts. We better be able to prove that we serve the general good or you can be sure that higher education's share of private and public funding will continue to be redirected to what will seem worthier causes.
Fortunately, there is much to make us proud. Community colleges and regional public and private colleges and universities have long educated large percentages of low-income, first-generation, and second-chance students. Moreover, recent decades have seen a democratization of the most elite of America's colleges and universities. We can easily document generations of upward mobility in America, to say nothing of the vast societal advancements with roots in research and innovation on our campuses. However, despite these efforts, social mobility has slowed and our nation's rank in terms of higher education attainment has dropped dramatically. Have we done the work necessary to address the needs of the country today and are we well positioned to do so in the future?
It is easy to worry about the answers. Does higher education produce the K-12 teachers needed? Have we established clear standards for college preparation? Are we addressing the college readiness of a rising population of low-income college-bound students? Have we dedicated ourselves to the success of each student who enrolls? Have we pursued prestige and rankings to the detriment of our obligation to serve the public interest?
This is not an exercise in self-flagellation. America's system of higher education is extraordinary. Still, we must carefully attend to the conditions we see. An America able to fulfill its promise must be nurtured by a system of higher education dedicated to advancing the level of education of all its citizens.
The task is to advance a new population of students, one that has little experience with the enrollment processes and academic culture of higher education, and that has been traditionally under-prepared and underserved. The nation responded for past generations and for past societal imperatives, notably with the Morrill Act and the GI Bill, and by fostering both new campuses and growth in student financial aid for the baby-boom generation. How should we react today?
Clearly, the responsibility is shared. President Obama must use his considerable persuasive authority to convince our new families that higher education represents their way forward and is achievable - that his story is their story. Then he must lead the federal government in a concerted effort to improve college access for the most talented students. As shrinking endowments inevitably lead more colleges and universities away from need-blind/full-need policies, the plight of talented but underserved young men and women becomes even more acute. As several important reports have recently emphasized, we must develop aid programs that are easier to understand and to access. Meanwhile, state governments must adequately fund student enrollments at their public colleges and universities, even if that means worrying less about keeping affluent students in state and more about providing opportunities to the most vulnerable.
For our part, leaders in higher education can resist more fully the manner of competition that merely rearranges students among us and restricts opportunities for underserved students. Here we refer to the fact that institutional merit aid has grown faster than need-based aid in at least the last decade and that the zero-sum game of rankings appears to continue to drive key institutional decisions. Resisting these urges would leave more need-based aid and more spaces for needy students. Further, we can instruct those in charge of our enrollments, from academic deans to admission directors to student aid administrators, to cast their reach to capture a new generation of students whose merit may be somewhat differently measured. Less emphasis on standardized testing, the elimination of testing cut scores for admission for example, and thoughtful analysis of the ability of students from urban and rural environments to contribute to and benefit from our campuses is in order.
While no one is happy with the current economic upheaval, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. May this be the impetus to put aside individual goals and to truly work to promote the common good.
Jerome A. Lucido and Morton Owen Schapiro
Jerome A. Lucido is vice provost for enrollment policy and management at the University of Southern California and executive director of its Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. Morton Owen Schapiro is professor of economics and president of Williams College. This summer he will become president of Northwestern University.
In his first State of the Union Address, President Obama boldly asked for every American to commit to obtaining an additional year of higher education or training. He also set a goal that by 2020, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” There are two problems with this education plan. First, we have already achieved it. Second, even if we were not already the world leader in higher education attainment, it is far from clear that we would want to be.
OECD data seem to indicate that the U.S. no longer is the world leader in the share of its population obtaining a college degree (trailing Canada and Japan). However, at 29.4 percent, the percentage of Americans aged 25 or older with a college degree has never been higher (this trend holds for blacks and Hispanics, albeit at lower levels). Twenty years ago the share was below 20 percent – so our increase during that time has been nearly 50 percent. The U.S. is making substantial progress in educating its population at the postsecondary level. What is the problem?
Apparently, other countries are making progress at an even faster rate. U.S. improvement was only 15th best among 22 advanced countries whose group average increase was 75 percent since 1985, including Portugal, Austria, Spain, Korea, Italy, and Ireland – which have each doubled their college attainment rates. For a variety of reasons the OECD data report higher educational attainment than data from other sources. Economists Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee have extensively studied cross-country data, made adjustments for attainment by age and differences in the higher education systems across countries, and have found that the college attainment rate in the United States was over 50 percent larger than in the next most educated country, Korea. One reason for such dramatic differences is that the over-65 population in the U.S. is far more accomplished than their counterparts across the world – the OECD data look only at the 25-64 year old cohort.
Discussions about attainment statistics typically proceed under the inauspicious assumption that they are relevant. Rarely mentioned are reasons why such goals are important, and whether securing more higher education in particular is the best way (or even a good way) to achieve certain goals.
Is the president’s goal to increase the output and productivity of the American economy beyond what it would otherwise be? If so, then expanding the pool of graduates might do the trick if the number of Americans receiving a college diploma was the sole causal factor in determining economic growth. Alas, it is not. Education is but one of many ingredients in a mysterious growth recipe. Producing valuable goods and services requires the “right” mix of physical capital, labor skills, technological advances, institutions (such as secure property rights, the rule of law, customs and mores that promote trust, and so forth) and more than a sprinkle of luck. This mix differs across countries and over time and the recipe is wholly unknowable to any individual or group of individuals – in fact there is no recipe to follow. Every professional and lay social scientist to ever walk the face of the earth has gone to his grave trying to solve the mystery of growth – I do not expect any in our generation to enjoy a better fate.
More education has to be a good thing. After all, receiving more schooling can’t make you less productive, right? Education is like exercise, reading, spending time with one’s children, and sleeping – each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good. It is obvious … and wrong – for both individuals and societies as a whole.
While investing in each of these likely generates enormous benefits when starting from scratch, at some point each additional unit invested generates fewer benefits than the one before it – just as eating that fourth doughnut brings you less satisfaction than did the second. What if these so-called “diminishing returns” never set in for education? In a world of scarce time and resources, they must, albeit indirectly. Dedicating more resources to the production of educated workers must come at the expense of resources dedicated to creating other important capital goods, institutions, or consumption goods. An individual cannot dedicate 24 hours in a day to everything, nor can society dedicate all of its resources to everything. Put another way, if merely leading the world in educational attainment is desirable, why not aim to have every American receive a college degree? Better yet, why not aim to have every American earn a Ph.D.?
Is Education Necessary?
Leaving aside the possibility that higher education serves only a signaling function there is still room to ask the question: is education a necessary condition for economic achievement? A good deal of economic evidence points to a strong positive relationship across countries between educational attainment and economic growth. Given the small sample sizes involved in these studies and the difficulty of controlling all the factors influencing growth I would not stake much money defending these findings. To illustrate just one difficulty, were you to collect data on the time people spent on Facebook I am sure it would show up as a strong positive in growth estimations.
There are notable exceptions to the received wisdom. Several African countries made commitments to education since 1970 that were comparable to the countries with successful growth stories from that time, with no considerable economic growth to speak of. Hong Kong became one of the wealthiest regions in the world before it began any substantial investments in education. Within the United States there is a surprisingly small correlation between “economically dynamic states” and the level of educational attainment. In fact, the rank order correlation between how dynamic the state’s economy is and its share of bachelors degrees is only 0.34. While clearly some of the most dynamic states such as Massachusetts and California have terrific educational systems, other dynamic states such as Oklahoma, while short on college graduates, use some of the other “ingredients” mentioned above to promote their development. To be clear, I am not arguing that education is not important. What this does show is that neither is it a guarantee of success, nor lack of it a guarantee of failure.
Education and Human Capital
Education qua education is not a bad thing. It is nonetheless a mistake to conflate formal education with accumulating relevant human capital – the bundle of skills, experience, discipline, etc. required for an individual to produce things of value (broadly considered).
Colleges indeed develop social skills, help individuals identify with peers, and inculcate productive behavior – particularly important for students that did not grow up in an environment conducive to these habits. However, college also contains a considerable consumption component (this is no longer the exclusive domain of elite four-year colleges), and as information technology continues to advance at a breathtaking pace, so too does the opportunity for individuals to acquire important human capital outside of the academy. Despite the dizzying array of colleges, the forgoing factors might give one pause before urging the masses of Americans to attend college as the best way for them to accumulate human capital. These same factors are making it increasingly likely that the super-talented will eschew such formal training in favor of more customized real-life education.
Suppose that education is synonymous with human capital accumulation. Focusing on average educational attainment still makes the erroneous assumption that a year of additional education to every citizen increases the stock of human capital the same for each citizen, and also overlooks the possibility that changes in the quality of different levels of educational attainment may be more or less valuable investments than sending more people to college. For example, improving the stock of useful knowledge might be better accomplished by encouraging existing college graduates to obtain advanced degrees, with no change in high school graduate behavior. Alternatively, it might mean the same aggregate level of college completions, but changing who goes to college and who does not. It would be a wondrous coincidence if having lots of Americans complete four years of formal higher education was the appropriate way to increase the stock of human capital in America.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
There are practical obstacles to reaching the president’s goal. Despite the measured and well publicized benefits of going to college, one-third of high-school graduates never attend, and roughly 50 percent of those that do attend actually remain until completion. To those of us who have taught large introductory courses (even in highly ranked universities) these figures are unsurprising. Aside from the considerable difficulty many of my students have writing, a number of them have basic vocabulary difficulties – as words such as scrutiny, anomaly, ascertain, isolate and mitigate continue to vex them.
It is a mathematical fact that as we expand college enrollments beyond what they are today, the average quality of students will go down. And while evidence is very strong that the current returns to receiving a college degree are quite large, increasing the supply of college-educated labor (everything else constant) puts downward pressure on these returns. Are political leaders and the educational establishment prepared for this, particularly if these trends -- by significantly increasing the enrollment of poorly prepared students at non-elite colleges -- increase the advantages of attending a prestigious college?
As enrollments increase, so too will financial pressures at most colleges. Student demand has recently surged in the U.S. and despite the fact that real state expenditures have been increasing at healthy clips over that time, per student expenditures have not kept pace. Proposals on the table to expand educational attainment include refundable tax credits and an expansion of Pell Grants – but these present a problem for many state colleges and universities in the form of an unfunded type of mandate. While they may help students afford college attendance, tuition and fees reflect only a small portion of the total cost of educating students at even the lowest cost colleges. Institutions with little excess capacity may find themselves in an increasingly difficult financial position particularly if they face political pressure to keep tuition low. Such supply issues are commonly overlooked in proposals that focus on expanding access on the demand side.
Skinning the Cat
The U.S. is already the world leader in its financial commitment to higher education – dedicating almost three percent of GDP to the sector (a share that has been rising, not falling, over time). Spending more might make sense, but rarely in these discussions does one encounter the question, “At what cost?” Does it make sense to sacrifice more and better carpenters or professional baseball players just to lead the world in college completions? Perhaps I am overplaying that hand. But there are many ways for individuals and societies to improve their human capital and productivity without relying on political forces to put more people through college.
Migration is one of the most powerful ways for an individual to augment human capital. International immigration vividly demonstrates this – a poor person living on $2 per day who migrates to the United States to accept a minimum wage job would experience a 20-fold increase in living standards just by moving here. Migration within the United States from areas with low-capital and low-productivity toward areas with more capital and higher productivity will have a similar effect. If the U.S. wishes to raise its average education levels, it would be far cheaper to simply encourage more immigration of educated workers from abroad. While such a move would undoubtedly alleviate some of America’s Social Security and Medicare problems, its low savings “problem” and its inner-city problems, it is a political non-starter.
Incidentally, that the rest of the world is “catching up” to the U.S. in educational attainment is cause for celebration, not alarm. For American consumers (we are all among them) this will mean access to innumerable new medicines, literature, advanced materials, etc. no less than if Americans were creating them. As the world grows wealthier and more connected, the market for American sourced goods and services is dramatically extended, as is the number of ideas for Americans to capitalize on – expanding opportunities for Americans without a formal education. Japanese auto-maker Toyota, for example, plans on producing its hybrid Prius here in the United States. Is this reason to worry about Japanese educational attainment surpassing ours?
Michael Rizzo is a lecturer in economics at the University of Rochester. He notes: “At the risk of being accused of taking away the party punch bowl, readers should know that I stand to benefit a great deal if more Americans partook in the college experience since I teach large numbers of introductory and intermediate economics students for a living.”
Foiled. At 1:45 a.m. By a pop-up window on our classroom SMART Board. “The system will shut down for routine maintenance in 180 seconds.”
I had to hurry to save our work. For my final Bunker Hill Community College Fall 2009 English 111 midnight class, I’d forgotten to ask my IT friends about system status. There went my pedagico/journalistico coup de grace -- my students were going to write this column. We were going to file, photos and all, from class.
The class, 9 over the finish line out of 14 starters, was happy to leave the work to me. Forty-eight large pizzas and 32 large meatball grinders, and who knows how much coffee, since September, and we made it. The idea no one believed in -- midnight classes -- had worked, my English section and the Tuesday night class, Psych 101.
Colleagues had taught me to bring food to off-hours courses. You just don’t know when a community college student has eaten. One night, I went in early -- 10 p.m. The food vanished. Who might be hungrier than midnight students? The overnight cleaning crew. I just went back to Harvard House of Pizza, our family local, for another order. Nasser Khan, the owner, told me that his son, now at Northeastern, had started college at BHCC.
Since the students will read this, I’d better respect what I said anyone writing anything must use -- Aristotle and the rhetorical triangle. Hitting the three points, I am the author. You are the audience.
The subject? A report on teaching English 111 for a semester, Thursdays from 11:45 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. Friday morning.
Context? An Inside Higher Ed column.
Purpose? To record all the fine work of the semester, without letting this column slop into a feel-good tale of holiday heroism.
This story remains a national nightmare. Why, in the wealthiest nation in the world, are students, any students, going to school at midnight? Because those students have lousy shifts at work is not the answer. Sure, I’m proud to be on a team at a community college that reaches out until we, the people, find a better idea. I admit I’m angrier than I was in September. I am not the story. The students are.
Who shows up for a midnight class? Kwesi George, who took the Tuesday midnight psychology class and the Thursday writing class, walked each night from Somerville to BHCC, roughly three miles, because the buses and trains stop running about midnight. (Yes, we found rides for him when we discovered this.)
“I signed up for midnight because school is important and I didn’t want to delay my education. Also, if I didn’t go to school this semester, my mother said she’d kick me out,” Kwesi, 19, wrote for our crashed column. “I work at Toys R Us. I am going to take another midnight class next semester.”
“I’m 57. I hadn’t been to school in 40 years. I want to become a nurse,” said Winston Chin. His best work was an essay about returning to China with his parents and finding a brother he’d never met. The brother came to live in Boston. “I work the 3-11 p.m. shift as a sterile processing tech, sterilizing surgical instruments at Children’s Hospital. I walked into the shift change at work one day, and found 25 people clapping and cheering. I had no idea what was going on. Someone said, ‘Your face is on the front page of The New York Times.’ ”
Midnight classes have 1,000 Web hits, and counting. The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times (Page One!), the Associated Press -- more than 50 U.S. papers and also all over the world, The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Times, WBUR-FM, "The Story with Dick Gordon" on American Public Radio. The television crews ended up in Pysch 101, with my colleague, Kathleen O’Neill, who proposed midnight classes in the first place. So far, Fox News, local Boston television news. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation visited some of the students at work. CNN is still trying to find a date.
Everyone is asking. Who are these students? They just are community college students. In my 7 a.m. section, students are arriving from Logan Airport, where they have spent the night gassing jet planes. At a 2 p.m. class, the students may have been at work until midnight. Kathleen O’Neill and I keep explaining that our midnight classes are just classes, examples of community college classes, not exceptions. Perhaps our two classes have just given the world a window into what’s really happening at community colleges. Perhaps with all this coverage the nation is realizing how many motivated students there are.
What do we have to do to keep the students’ attention after midnight? Nothing special, we say. Community college students know the value of education and want to learn. Well, maybe a little nudge for the midnight students. “Dear Students of Psychology 101 T2 & English 111 H4,” U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), wrote the students back in September.
Excerpts from Kerry’s letter:
“Higher education is never easy – especially at that hour of the night! I applaud your commitment – really, just enrolling is a big step forward. I know that if you work hard and focus on your goals, there is no limit on what you can accomplish. … I know that you are in good hands with Professor Sloane and Professor O’Neill. They will do everything in their power to see you succeed. Listen to them, ask questions, drinks lots of coffee, and this will turn out to be one of the best experiences of your life.”
“That letter motivated me to stay in the class,” Terrance Gallo, 18, told us during our final class. “I felt like if the Senator noticed me, this class must be important. We wrote him back. I learned how to write a letter to a U.S. Senator.”
“When you wrote a letter giving us courage, I felt so grateful because I didn’t think I could do it, but for sure I did it,” Theresa Nixon, who declared her age “not applicable,” wrote in her letter to Kerry.
“The time works for me because I have a son, Isaiah, who is six. I work 40-50 hours a week at Beth Israel Hospital in the Emergency Room. Isaiah is my life. I want him to know he can do anything if he has the faith and the drive. Just like you Senator Kerry, you pursued and won the battle. I wanted to take the time to thank you for this opportunity and for listening to us because we do matter too.”
Time to file this one. So what? What does it all mean? Maybe, just maybe, the national discussion is moving on from the hero-teacher stories to a new chapter. Jaime Escalante from "Stand and Deliver," Erin Gruwell from "Freedom Writers," and Jonathan Kozol have demonstrated that education can reach the poor and the marginalized. Maybe, just maybe, a few more people realize that the six million students at 1,177 community colleges are more than a line on a fact sheet.