The board of Morehouse College has decided not to renew the contract of John Wilson as president, and he will leave after four years in office. The college’s press release praised Wilson. But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that his tenure has been controversial, with criticism of budget cuts and tuition increases that Wilson said were needed due to financial problems.
This past fall’s elections marked a significant change for our nation, both in terms of leadership and direction. As a historian, I am always interested in the how and why of such phenomena, and as an educator, I am interested in what they mean for higher education. So I’ve spent a good deal of time in recent weeks talking with a wide range of people from coast to coast and reading a host of analyses in an effort to grasp the world that is unfolding and how our colleges and universities fit into it.
I’ve come away from that experience with two basic observations. The first is that our nation is more divided than I realized, and the division is more about opportunity than ideology. A recurring theme in my conversations and reading was one of anxiety and anger among many Americans about being left behind. Many people feel that globalization and innovation have not left them better off, and that the institutions that are supposed to help them are not there for them. This sense of an opportunity gap is palpable and powerful, and it will have a real and lasting impact on our politics.
The second observation is that this opportunity gap has a good deal to do with higher education. While inequities in economic opportunity lie at the heart of many Americans’ discontent, educational opportunity is a natural extension of that frustration. In recent years, we have seen survey after survey document the sentiment that education after high school is necessary but increasingly unaffordable. Meanwhile, according to recent data from Public Agenda, public belief that college is essential has slipped. It is too early to tell if that is a blip or a trend, but it is powerfully illustrated by a comment made to me by a gas station attendant in Iowa: “Why would I spend money I don’t have to go to a community college where no one graduates?”
As we begin 2017, I believe that we in higher education need to engage in a serious dialogue about our role in exacerbating the opportunity gap and our obligation going forward to close it. For me, that means grappling with three basic questions.
What Is Higher Education, and Who Is It For?
In our public conversation and policy making, we simply must take a broader view of education after high school and who pursues it. Even today, we labor under outdated images of newly minted high school graduates making their way to lectures and leafy quads, even as 40 percent of our students are over 25 and fully one-quarter are parents. It is time to move conversations about matters like digital learning and redesigning remedial education from the margins to the mainstream and embrace new delivery models that aren’t grounded in seat time and agrarian calendars but rather meet the needs of today’s students.
Institutions like Rio Salado College in Arizona grasp these realities and are responding to them by embracing a combination of online and in-class learning and by having an academic calendar that begins a new term virtually every Monday, rather than just two or four times a year. States are also waking up to the realities of today’s college students, launching initiatives like Tennessee Reconnect to bring adults with some college experience but no credential back into the pipeline for a degree or certificate.
How Important Is Higher Education?
Even as Americans increasingly question the value of higher education, the evidence is clear: our economy favors those with education and training after high school and punishes those who lack it. Virtually all the jobs created since the Great Recession required some form of postsecondary education, from short-term certifications to postdoctoral studies. And that trend will only continue, as the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Economy estimates that, at current enrollment and completion rates, our economy faces a shortfall of 11 million credentialed workers. We need more access and success in higher education, and we especially need it for the people who have consistently been left behind: low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults.
And yet, higher education’s incentive and recognition systems continue to celebrate and reward exclusion. The institutions that top the U.S. News & World Report rankings are the ones that reject the most applicants. The colleges and universities that receive the greatest per-student public funding are the least diverse ones. And as my colleague Anthony P. Carnevale, direct of the center at Georgetown, noted recently, our elite institutions are unable to meaningfully tackle the growing opportunity gap in this country. We must rewrite that narrative if we are going to leave fewer Americans behind.
Institutions like Arizona State University, Georgia State University and the other members of the University Innovation Alliance deserve credit and, more important, support for their efforts to redefine excellence not in terms of whom they exclude but whom they include -- and how well those students succeed. So do open-access institutions that redefine their students’ experiences to emphasize credential completion and employment, like Miami Dade College and Sinclair Community College. They and a growing cadre of other innovators are determined to achieve excellence through inclusion.
What Is Higher Education’s Role in the Public Arena?
Throughout the nation’s history, colleges and universities and their leaders have been engaged in the great debates of war and peace, civil rights, and poverty and inequality. But as America increasingly cleaves along the lines of the haves and have-nots, where is higher education on issues affecting the disaffected, like immigration and health care reform? Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, rightly argued recently in this publication that as an enterprise, higher education has become too insular, too self-referential and too risk averse. Many college and university leaders, fearful of the wrath of politicians and donors, have moved from the center to the sidelines in the public arena. Their voices are urgently needed to substantively address the opportunity gap.
I am heartened to see campus leaders address questions related to immigration and use their convening power to address and hopefully lower racial tensions affecting many communities. But I am also left to wonder how much standing we in higher education have already ceded in the public arena, absorbed with the pursuit of prestige and the race for revenue as those left behind have fallen even farther back.
At the end of the day, I am an optimist. I believe that the educational opportunity gap can be bridged. In fact, it must be bridged if we are going to have an economy and society that is about raising people up rather than leaving them behind. For us in higher education, that process begins by recognizing where our rhetoric may be at odds with reality -- and then doing something about it.
Dan Greenstein is director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A man was stabbed early Sunday morning at the home of the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, The Boston Globe reported. The man who was stabbed, who is 20, is in the hospital, and no information was available on his condition. J. Keith Motley, the chancellor, was traveling at the time. He issued a statement that said he was rushing home. “I have learned about an incident that occurred at my residence last night and am very concerned about it as well as the health of the young man who was injured,” said a statement from Motley.
The University of Alaska at Anchorage’s Faculty Senate on Friday voted no confidence in Jim Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska System, 28 to 9, the Alaska Dispatch Newsreported. The nonbinding resolution says that faculty turnover has increased while morale has declined under Johnsen’s tenure, in part because "the issues or concerns raised by the faculty have had no apparent influence on" and are not addressed by any decisions concerning a major system restructuring.
That process, called Strategic Pathways, aims to streamline academic and administrative operations across campuses. Frank Jeffries, a professor of business and public policy, said that the restructuring didn't follow best practices, and the statewide administration appeared to make decisions while "completely ignoring financial implications,” according to the Dispatch News.
Alaska Board of Regents Chair Gloria O'Neill said the regents still have full confidence in Johnsen. "I believe this is systematic of real change and the messy environment that we find ourselves in," she added.
The United States has seen a significant decline in state support for higher education in recent years. From 2000 to 2012, state support per full-time equivalent student declined from an average of $7,000 to $4,400 after inflation, a drop of almost 4 percent a year. Over the same period, federal support grew 2.5 percent annually after inflation, from $3,800 to $5,100 per full-time equivalent.
The contrast between state and federal investment in the specific period from 2008 to 2012, the first four years after the Great Recession, was even greater: state support declined at an annual rate of 7.8 percent, while federal support grew at an annual rate of 7.3 percent. And while three states (Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming) have increased support for public higher education over the past three years, the other 47 states have decreased it.
On a more granular level, one has seen budget collapses at the City University of New York and a budget impasse threatening all public universities in Illinois. One might ask why City University -- which not only offered high-quality tuition-free university education through 1976 but also produced 13 Nobel laureates from the classes of 1933 through 1963 -- does not enjoy greater public support, support it once had. One might ask why Illinois universities -- including the flagship University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago State University and others -- do not enjoy greater public support, again support the system once had.
The Tragedy of the Commons
The decline in state support for public universities appears to be flip side of a classic economic conundrum: the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes overuse of a shared resource (for example, a fishing area) by individual users (fishermen). Since each fisherman can expect to harvest only a small fraction of future fish growth, the optimal strategy is to catch as many fish as possible, even though the collective result of all of those individual optimal strategies is to drive the fish population to extinction. W. F. Lloyd first described this “tragedy of the commons,” or the overexploitation of a shared resource, almost 200 years ago.
The tragedy of the commons is fundamentally a mismatch between the scale of the decision maker(s) and the scale of the resource. In the presence of this mismatch, and the absence of communication and agreement among users, each user’s optimal economic strategy in exploiting a shared resource (a fishery, or, more generally, the commons) is to overexploit the resource, potentially driving it to extinction.
A similar mismatch has emerged in support for United States public universities. Until now, public universities, like public schools, have been primarily funded locally: public schools through a combination of local and state support, and universities largely at the state level. Historically, most graduates stayed local, and most of the hiring was local. Thus, each individual participant (for example, a local business) in a local community received much of the benefit of their investment, motivating investment commensurate with the benefits of the university. State support of public universities matched the scale of users of these universities, and state investment in their public universities benefited the state population and businesses.
In contrast, if far fewer graduates stayed local, and much of hiring were significantly broader based (for example, national or global), an individual participant would logically choose to invest little or nothing in their local public universities. The logic parallels the classical tragedy of the commons, where individual users (herdsman or fisherman), acting independently, together overexploit a common resource because each has essentially no ownership of the resource. In this case, each participant underinvests because they receive only a small benefit from investing in the shared resource -- the scales of statewide investment and broader national usage do not match. The results are also similar: namely collapse of the common resource.
This reverse tragedy of the commons describes the present-day United States. Public universities have become national resources, not merely state resources, providing benefits both in the state and outside of it. The educated population is highly mobile, and businesses recruit and hire their best-educated employees on a national or global scale.
Thus, federal support for public universities has grown in recent years because the scale of federal decision making and investment matches the national scale of usage of public universities. But meanwhile, state support has fallen sharply because the scale of state decision making and investment does not match the national scale of the hiring and mobility of the well educated.
Reductions in state support not only harm the quality and affordability of public universities; they also trigger further reductions in support. Business can hire out of state, even outside the United States. Those seeking science, engineering and technology workers can use the H-1B visa program to access a global talent pool. Students who are able can choose to attend out-of-state or private universities.
To fill the gap in state support, public universities can pursue out-of-state students to increase revenue. But states like California have been publicly pressured to reduce out-of-state admissions in favor of in-state students. Another possibility -- raising tuition -- both reduces opportunities for students and makes state universities less competitive economically.
Meanwhile, those strategies don’t really address the collapse of support for public education -- and its negative consequences. (It’s worth noting, for example, that all 13 Nobel laureates at City University graduated between 1933 and 1963 -- none did during the disinvestment in the 1970s and later.) And they all further weaken the case for state taxpayer support, driving a downward spiral in state support for public universities.
User Communities on a National Scale
How can this spiral toward collapse of public universities be stopped? Fisheries management suggests two alternative but complementary approaches, both based upon the concept of an optimal strategy for the user community as a whole. One approach to managing fisheries is to regulate the total harvest at a sustainable level and then to apportion the harvest to fishermen in one of several ways: restrict the season, restrict the effort or adopt a system of catch shares.
The analog for funding universities would be to provide funding at a sustainable level on a suitable scale and then allocate enrollment. That is the current model in Germany and the Nordic countries, reflecting “deeply rooted social values, such as equality of opportunity and social equity” (OECD report, 2015). That model was once common in the United States before public support lost pace with increasing costs and tuition was introduced to make up the shortfall. Examples include the University of California system and City University of New York. New York State’s community colleges were created on an analogous but explicit shared-funding model: one-third funding each from the state, local sponsors and students.
We can and should move toward a more significant national component of a shared funding model, as a partial replacement for the failing present approach of state funding. But perhaps we simply need to start with more open communication about the benefits of investment in public higher education.
Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel laureate in the economic sciences, essentially called for the emergence of user communities of beneficiaries of a common resource, such as a university, who understand and together effectively manage their common resource, generating a match between the scale of a common resource and the community of its users. As she stated in her Nobel lecture, “Isolated, anonymous individuals overharvest from common-pool resources. Simply allowing communication, or ‘cheap talk,’ enables participants to reduce overharvesting and increase joint payoffs … Large studies of irrigation systems in Nepal and forests around the world challenge the presumption that governments always do a better job than users in organizing and protecting important resources.” In particular, “resources in good condition have users with long-term interests, who invest in monitoring and building trust.”
In fact, private universities have also needed to develop and cultivate their own user communities to generate adequate support and have experienced some striking contrasts. Overall alumni giving rates have fallen significantly, but colleges and universities with a well-identified sense of community have experienced increased overall giving and high alumni giving rates. This trend brings hope for the future.
We need to build upon this concept to better support public higher education on a broad, national scale. To this end I offer several concrete suggestions to galvanize a national user community. We should:
Develop a unified voice as stakeholders. Public universities are represented by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Their membership forms a complex Venn diagram. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a member of APLU and AAU but not AASCU, while many other UNC campuses are members of APLU and AASCU but not AAU. There are also separate organizations for private nonprofit universities, for community colleges and for university faculty. Although all of those associations have similar agendas for improving funding for and access to the higher educational common, a unified single voice for public universities could speak more effectively to further a common agenda.
Communicate more effectively to the public. We must make the case that support for broad access to higher education is a mission-critical national investment, in the spirit of the post-Sputnik space program and the war on cancer. More budget transparency and improved public outreach are key components.
Speak on behalf of a broad national user community of stakeholders in higher education. A partnership including industry, as well as between public and private universities, is needed. I applaud AAU President Mary Sue Coleman’s address “Saving Public Higher Education” at the 2016 World Academic Summit, and in particular her statement “Public universities are the workhorses of American teaching and research. And the benefits to society are powerful.” Although she notes that there are no private research universities in a majority of states, the AAU itself recognizes the value of a broad public-private effort by including 26 private research universities in America among its 62 member institutions. Public and private universities should be coming together to support their common mission and generate increased public support for all.
Advocate for more national-scale support, while preserving the independence of public and private universities. Such a program could perhaps be modeled upon a combination of existing federal grants, the National Merit Scholarship Program, Pell Grants and ROTC (as a model of public service).
In summary, we in higher education must work together to build a more active and effective national user community, one that acts on its collective responsibility to support its commons -- the public universities of the United States -- with increased national-scale support.
Harold M. Hastings is professor emeritus at Hofstra University and an adjunct faculty member in the sciences at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. These opinions are his own.
Survey suggests that increasing student demand for mental health services -- spurred by prevention and awareness campaigns -- may be leading colleges to focus less on ongoing treatment in order to respond more rapidly to high-risk students.
Beverly Wendland, James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, has no plans to close the historic Humanities Center, she assured faculty members and students Wednesday. Wendland made her announcement in a cover letter to a faculty committee report on the department’s future. The report recommends one of three courses of action: keeping the center’s name while rethinking its role in relation to other humanities departments; renaming the department as something that more “clearly conveys its identity and focus”; or transforming the humanities center into a comparative literature department, “building on the expertise of current faculty and using vacant faculty lines to recruit strong scholars in this specific, interdisciplinary field.”
Wendland said Johns Hopkins will “consider carefully all of the committee’s recommendations and options in order to determine the best path forward for the humanities.” Students and faculty members objected to the possible closure of the 50-year-old interdisciplinary Humanities Center in the fall, launching a petition and website to save it. The new report calls out some of those protesters, saying, “We believe that the situation could have provided a teachable moment regarding how to engage calmly and rationally with controversy, but unfortunately, the students may not have had proper faculty guidance in doing so.”
January is the time when we say good-bye to the previous 12 months and look ahead to the next ones. It’s clear that 2016 was an especially turbulent year for higher education. What’s on tap for 2017?
Here are a few of the most serious trending issues that are likely to affect colleges and universities.
Sliding enrollments. College and university enrollment in America continued to decline in 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Not all institutions have been affected equally: four-year public and elite private institutions continue to grow, while small colleges are under strain, intensifying the gap between haves and have-nots. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, tipped over the 100,000 mark for applications this fall, and Yale University announced a multiyear effort to enroll more students from its sizable pool. But more than four in 10 private colleges and almost three in 10 public ones missed their goals for enrollment and tuition revenue in 2016.
While demographic trends vary by region, in general the student population is becoming more diverse, fueled by increases in numbers of Hispanic and Asian students. Many colleges also have relied upon international students to diversify their campuses and plug the enrollment hole, but concerns over Trump administration rhetoric about immigration may depress international applications, as has already occurred in British universities in the wake of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.
Concerns about cost and access. The free-college effort is likely dead at the federal level, but that doesn’t mean concerns about cost will abate. Bipartisan pressure will continue to force colleges and universities to rein in tuition increases and justify endowment spending, as well as compel selective institutions to increase enrollment of low-income students. States and cities also have the opportunity to adopt the narrative about free; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was first out of the gate in 2017, and others are likely to follow.
Celebrity authors and scholars as well as politicians have led such efforts. Malcolm Gladwell launched a podcast series in 2016 decrying the high cost of college and poor access for low-income students. Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University and Inside Higher Edcolumnist Wick Sloan, among others, have led campaigns to highlight the challenges of college students who are homeless or food insecure -- more than 20 percent, according to a national report.
Colleges and universities are responding. Thirty campuses have joined an effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies called the American Talent Initiative, while more than 90 institutions participate in the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. Both efforts aim to reduce barriers and increase the number of lower-income students who apply to and enroll in selective colleges. Campuses also are launching food banks, shelter programs and emergency assistance funds for students who have short-term challenges with food or housing.
Questions about value. A growing chorus of business and civic leaders is questioning the value of college. One of the most vocal proponents of the skip-college narrative, Peter Thiel, has a newly influential role as a member of the Trump transition team. The presidential election pointed up a stark gap in opportunity and perception between college graduates and those with a college degree, leading to headlines about the “humbling of higher education” and college graduates who are “out of touch.”
Colleges are renewing their efforts to demonstrate value, not only in employment and earnings benefits to graduates but also in their role as an economic engine for regional economies. A growing number of campuses, both large and small, have embarked on new efforts to engage with their local communities. And research institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University have large, sustained innovation initiatives to spur new business development and commercialize faculty and student discoveries.
A focus on careers and job placement. Although related to the discussion about value, the growing concern about employment and job placement is so powerful that it deserves its own entry. Students and parents increasingly expect their college or university to be a partner in helping them to map out a successful career path. The 2016 Gallup-Purdue study found a gap between student expectations and college performance in career placement, with only one in six college graduates saying their campus career office was helpful.
Colleges and universities of all types and sizes -- from research-intensive institutions to small liberal arts colleges -- are revamping career services and redefining their role in student career planning. Examples of new programs include engaging first-year students in the career office from day one, alumni career mentoring initiatives and targeted efforts to provide career support for low-income and first-generation college students.
Declining state support. Although not a new trend, the impact of declining state support for higher education has generated a new level of concern. Starving the Beast, a documentary about ideological shifts in state government and the resulting impact on public universities, was released in 2016 and sparked public discussion and numerous opinion pieces.
In December, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center issued recommendations on how to sustain public higher education. The center assembled a team of college administrators, business executives and former public officials, including former governors of Delaware and Florida. Their list of solutions includes federal block grants designed to pressure states into supporting public colleges adequately, as well as funding incentives tied to graduation rates.
Collisions over campus climate. Creating a welcoming climate for women and minorities is a long-running issue for college campuses, but things reached a boiling point after the 2016 presidential election. White nationalist groups have seized the opportunity to spread hate messages on campuses across the country. Trump rhetoric about immigration and Muslims has left many students feeling vulnerable, leading to pressure for campuses to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented students.
Immigration policy under a Trump administration is uncertain, as is the position of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights -- and in particular the enforcement of Title IX. Regardless of federal policy, activism around Title IX and sexual misconduct is likely to continue, and campuses are expected to sharpen their focus on programs, policies and support systems to combat sexual assault and harassment.
The dialogue about campus climate has increasingly included overcoming a racist past. Some institutions -- Georgetown University has been a leader -- have owned up to a history of slavery and made significant changes such as renaming buildings or programs. Other campuses have dedicated new or existing spaces in honor of African-American leaders. Whether proactively, such as the University of Michigan, or responding to a crisis, such as the University of Missouri, a number of colleges and universities have launched comprehensive plans focused on diversity and inclusion.
The defense of academic freedom and free speech. The University of Chicago brought free speech back into the spotlight this fall with the welcome letter its college dean sent to incoming students. Exactly what constitutes free speech in a university, and does it conflict with trigger warnings and attempts to create safe spaces for vulnerable groups such as members of racial minorities or survivors of sexual assault? Although all colleges defend free speech and play an important role in educating students about it, the precise boundaries vary from one campus to another.
One thing is certain: it’s easier to argue for free speech when you’re the one speaking. After the presidential election, some students who voted for Trump felt attacked and said they needed safe space, too. A “professor watch list” has been launched to shame faculty members conservatives think are pushing liberal ideas in the classroom. And the Trump transition team recently sent questionnaires throughout the Department of Energy to identify work done on climate change, raising alarm bells in the academy. Climate scientists are now organizing to defend their research and academic freedom.
So, What to Do?
The tensions are mounting and so are the stakes. Since head in the sand is not an effective strategy, we’d like to offer a few guideposts for higher education institutions that are navigating today’s uncertain terrain.
Be self-critical. Colleges and universities can assess and acknowledge areas for improvement and confront them with constructive game plans. Proactive leadership begins with self-evaluation and plans for change.
Make sure college is worth it. It is not enough to decry the devaluing of a liberal education. Our scan shows just how deep public skepticism about the cost and value of college runs, and higher education must find substantial ways both to lower student costs and increase the return on their investment. Career assistance, better information about job placement, opportunities for internships and increases in scholarship support all have to be on each institution’s docket.
Bridge the divide with new communications methods and fresh perspective. If it is us versus them, we cannot make progress. From continued defunding of public higher ed to sensationalized campus rhetoric, polarized stances are inhibiting shared understanding. Can we set aside blame and labels and work instead to listen more carefully toward finding some common ground? That will entail an authentic, two-way dialogue and new ways of describing and demonstrating value in today’s world, not just the usual universityspeak.
Find innovative new collaborators and partnerships. The coming year won’t be one of business as usual. New partnerships and opportunities, more innovation, and perhaps the occasional odd bedfellow can help illuminate new opportunities and advance mutual goals.
Get out ahead. The colleges and universities that best weather challenging storms are those that best anticipate and confront issues early and honestly.
Lisa M. Rudgers and Julie A. Peterson are co-founders of Peterson Rudgers Group, a consulting firm focused on higher education strategy, leadership and brand.
Many colleges and universities loudly and proudly proclaim they are committed to admitting more low-income students. The institutions are sincere, but despite the best of intentions, many of their policies act as barriers to keep most low-income students out, including those students with outstanding academic records.
The exclusion of the brightest low-income students is most severe at our nation’s highly selective colleges. A study issued this year by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director, found that a mere 3 percent of students at America’s top colleges come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes. In contrast, 72 percent of students at these institutions come from the 25 percent of families with the highest incomes.
This enormous gap in admissions between students in the highest and lowest income groups is a national embarrassment. It doesn’t exist because the rich are smarter than the poor. It exists because the rich are getting a lot of breaks the poor simply aren’t. One of those breaks is the policy of early admissions.
Candidates for early admissions get many advantages, but the disadvantage the practice confers on low-income students is a fatal flaw. For that reason, colleges should abandon early admissions and return to admitting all students on the same timetable in the spring, so everyone competes on a level playing field.
According to the College Board, about 450 colleges now offer early admissions. That’s up from just over 100 in the 1990s, a Stanford University study found. There are two types of early admissions. Early-decision admissions require students to commit to attend the college if admitted and withdraw applications to other schools. Early action is not binding, so students are not required to attend after being admitted.
A survey by The Washington Post earlier this year “found 37 schools where the early-decision share of enrolled freshmen in 2015 was at least 40 percent,” including 54 percent at the University of Pennsylvania. That leaves a lot fewer openings for students applying during the regular admission period.
Early-admissions policies are good for colleges, because they attract students with a strong desire to attend, making it less likely the students will turn down offers of admission. That allows colleges to fill a good chunk of each freshman class early with a diverse mix of students. It also lets them shape a class with students needing little or no financial aid, to keep institutional budgets in balance.
On top of that, early admissions help colleges decrease their acceptance rates. College rankings, such as those complied by U.S. News & World Report, often use a low admit rate as an indication of an institution’s desirability, boosting its ranking.
Early-admissions policies are also good for students who apply this way -- usually by early November instead of the standard application deadline in January or February. Students admitted early find out in December or January, instead of during the regular admission-decision period in late April. That saves them months of worry and uncertainty and enables them to avoid applying to colleges that were merely backup choices.
More significantly, applying early can dramatically increase a student’s chances of acceptance at his or her first-choice school -- particularly at the most selective colleges and universities. For example, for the Class of 2020, only 6.8 percent of all students who applied for regular-decision admission to Ivy League schools were accepted. But the acceptance rate in the Ivy League for early-decision applicants was 20.3 percent -- nearly three times as high.
At Harvard University, which had the lowest acceptance rate in the Ivy League, just 3.4 percent of students applying for regular admission to the Class of 2020 were admitted, compared to 14.9 percent of those applying early. A study published by Harvard University Press estimated that students applying for early admission receive the equivalent of a 100-point bonus on the SAT -- an enormous advantage.
Students from affluent families often learn about the advantages of applying for early admissions from their college-educated parents, from expensive courses they take to prepare for taking the SAT and ACT exams, from their high school counselors or from private college coaches their parents hire to boost their admission chances.
But many low-income students are unaware of the option of applying early. Their parents typically have not gone to college and so can’t advise them. Guidance counselors at high schools with many low-income students are responsible for advising hundreds or as many as 1,000 students each, and so don’t have the time and, in many cases, the training to explain all the steps students can take to increase their odds of college admission.
For example, many low-income students are never told in their junior year of high school that they will need to have their ACT or SAT scores in hand by early-admission application deadlines, which are in November of their senior year. To have the scores in time, they need to take one or both of the tests in their junior year or the very beginning of their senior year in high school.
Most important, because low-income students can’t attend college without getting substantial financial aid, they can’t commit to enrolling in an institution by applying on an early-decision basis. They need to compare aid offers once they hear from all the colleges and universities that accept them. This fact alone essentially precludes those with financial need from applying early.
In contrast, wealthy students -- whose parents can pay their full college costs without financial aid -- have no problem applying for and accepting early-decision admissions.
The Cooke Foundation study found that only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college admission on an early-decision basis in the 2013-14 academic year. But 29 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes above $250,000 applied on an early-decision basis. Is it any wonder that so many more upper-income students gain admission?
The blatant unfairness of early admissions was obvious even before they became as widespread as they are today. In 2006, Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Virginia eliminated early admissions to give all students a fairer chance of being admitted. But unfortunately, they later had to reinstate early-action admissions to remain competitive when essentially all other colleges and universities offering early admissions refused to drop the policy.
Derek Bok, who was president of Harvard in 2006 when early admissions were dropped, justified the move in words that are as true today as they were 10 years ago. “Early-admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” Bok said. “Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries and high schools with fewer resources miss out. Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early-decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages. Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”
Similarly, a 2011 study of early admissions -- published in Teachers College Record and supported by the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California -- concluded that “those who enroll through early deadlines tend to be white, with higher family incomes and parents with greater levels of education.” The study added that “early decision in particular works as a sort of class-based affirmative action that gives wealthier applicants a ‘plus’ factor: a higher likelihood of being admitted than if they applied under the regular-decision deadline.”
The sad truth is that in our nation that proclaims itself “the land of opportunity,” the wealthy have far greater educational opportunities than the poor. A 2014 White House report explains just how much greater when it states, “While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just one in 10 people from low-income families do.”
When the wealthy are getting college degrees at a rate five times higher than the poor, something is terribly wrong and unjust. And it’s not only the low-income students who are being hurt. Our nation is being deprived of the talents of young people who could go on to become doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers and government leaders -- and who could fill many other vital jobs if only they had the chance to get a college education.
Barriers to equal educational opportunity for academically qualified students need to come down. One of the first to go -- and one that won’t require massive government spending to eliminate -- should be early-admissions policies in our nation’s colleges and universities.
Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Cooke Foundation, which has awarded over $152 million in scholarships to nearly 2,200 high-achieving students from low-income families and over $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.