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 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.