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American higher education is a mess of glaring contradictions.

  • Often touted as engines of opportunity and upward social mobility, American colleges and universities are also among the most stratified institutions in American society, differing radically in terms of resources, student-faculty ratios, and selectivity in admissions.
  • Despite regular and repeated denunciations of racism and racial disparities from administrators and faculty members, few selective institutions enroll a student body representative of the college age population’s demographics, with Black, Latinx, and students from low-income backgrounds concentrated in the least selective, lowest resourced institutions.
  • Higher ed’s faculty ranks among the most politically liberal segments of the U.S. population, yet the professoriate is also extremely status conscious and is highly differentiated by salary, job security, teaching load, research opportunities, and prestige.
  • Even though teaching and mentoring lie at the heart of a professor’s responsibilities, most faculty members receive no formal instruction in pedagogy, aren’t required to receive any professional development training, and, at many institutions, aren’t well rewarded for high quality instruction or for guiding and motivating students or providing emotional support or serving as role models.

I could go on.  

  • Even though a majority of undergraduates start at a community college and aspire for a bachelor’s degree, and even though 4-year schools would benefit from an influx of new students, barriers to transfer student success, including delays in credit evaluation, transfer credits denied or only accepted as electives, and inequities in financial aid allocations, persist, and 4-year institutions generally fail to recruit transfer students or provide them with sufficient post-enrollment academic or social integration support.
  •  It’s no surprise that many selective private colleges focus their recruitment efforts on affluent, predominantly white, often private high schools.  But it is astounding that many public flagships visit more out-of-state high schools than in those in-state, and also concentrate on affluent, predominantly white high schools, with an emphasis on private schools.
  • Despite a heightened focus on retention and completion, nearly two-fifths of all students who start at a 2- or 4-year schools fail to attain any degree within six years.  While this partly reflects student circumstances, it also reflects institutional policies that conflict with the realities of many students’ lives.
  • Many non-profit institutions behave like for-profits when they offer in-person or online professional master’s programs, regarding these programs as profit centers irrespective of student debt loans relative to average post-graduation earnings.

Then there are other kinds of tensions that beset American higher education:

  • The most obvious is the tension between a more vocational, technical, or pre-professional curriculum and one that emphasizes the liberal arts.
  • Then there’s the tendency for women and men to gravitate toward different majors.  To what extent should institutions self-consciously push back against this entrenched pattern?
  • There’s also the tension between higher ed’s longstanding commitment to shared governance and the reality that many key decisions are made outside that framework. 

But of all of higher education’s glaring contradictions, perhaps the most disturbing lies in the gaps in the educational experience that undergraduates receive along class and racial lines and that contribute to marked differences in completion rates and post-graduation employment.

Students at broad access institutions have much less access to advising, counseling, support services, and the high impact practices that promote student engagement and deep learning.  They’re also much less likely to interact with a tenured professor who is also a publishing scholar or take part in the co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that do so much to provide networking and leadership opportunities, open windows into careers, promote a sense of belonging, and contribute to psychological wellness and cultural enrichment.

In other words, it’s not just K-12 schools that reflect and reinforce society’s inequalities.  Our sector does too.

Higher ed’s contradictions stem less from hypocrisy than from the workings of the competitive marketplace, which rewards institutions very unequally and creates incentives at odds with colleges and universities’ self-declared democratic mission.

Our institutions seek prestige, rankings, revenue, and grants – which helps explain why more selective institutions fail to enroll more non-traditional students.  Faculty members pursue professional validation. We live in a market society, and it shouldn’t surprise us that market considerations drive decision-making at both the institutional and personal levels.

So what should the broad access institutions that serve most students do?

First, what they shouldn’t do.  Insofar as possible they should not retreat from the goal of providing a highly accessible, affordable, quality education, for example, by narrowing their curriculum.

Also, while they might supplement course offerings with short-term training and certification programs, faculty and accreditors need to recognize that the outcomes of such programs are mixed, and that an associate’s and especially a bachelor’s degree offers much more traction in the job market.

What, then, is the answer?  Greater equity in resources would surely help, and I certainly favor that.

But rather than wait for manna to fall from Heaven, I’d urge these campuses to borrow from the best.

There are many institutions that punch above their weight.  Despite resource constraints, certain colleges and universities bring outsized numbers of Black, Latinx, and Pell Grant eligible students to success.

What do these institutions do that others don’t?  These pace-setter institutions:

  1. Take onboarding of new students very seriously, offering immersion programs before classes start to build a sense of belonging, introduce students to campus facilities, services, and academic expectations, and provide new every student with an advisor and a degree plan. Some campuses make a special point of reaching out to parents and extended kin and encourage them to participate in orientation programs, recognizing that knowledgeable parents can contribute to success across students’ academic journey.
  2. Award course credit or certificates to students who participate in a Student Success or Introduction to College program to develop their study skills, learn about campus services, and assist with academic and career planning.
  3. Enroll entering students in thematically-focused meta-majors, course clusters, or cohorts to make course registration easier, build a sense of community, and open windows into possible majors and careers.
  4. Organize course offerings around time blocks, which allow students to consolidate their courses in the morning, afternoon, or evening, making it easier to balance academic, work, and caregiving responsibilities.
  5. Use data to track student progress and drive retention.  Early alerts trigger interventions when students are off track, reduce momentum, or shift majors.  Monitoring of waiting lists optimizes course scheduling.  Identification of high DFW courses pinpoints curricular bottlenecks.
  6. Reduce wasted credit hours by coordinating advising and aligning curricula between 2- and 4-year institutions.
  7. Replace remedial courses with co-requisite remediation, align math requirements with particular majors, and use high impact practices to increase student engagement, enrich the academic experience, build marketable skills, and give students opportunities to apply learning in authentic contexts.
  8. Emphasize authentic learning, by integrating research and career preparation across the curriculum and offering clinical, studio, and field-based courses.
  9. Deploy graduation concierges to work with students who are approaching graduation to help them meet all degree requirements.

The competitive marketplace has served some institutions well, bringing them the students deemed most talented and the resources to serve them well.   But other colleges and universities, those responsible for educating most undergraduates -- those with the greatest needs for advising, mentoring, and high impact practices -- are not the market’s beneficiaries.

If those students are to thrive, our small colleges, regional comprehensives, and urban institutions can’t wait for Washington, state legislatures, foundations, or philanthropists to ride to the rescue.  And even if a savior does miraculously arrive, those institutions would still need a strategy to help these students realize their God-given potential.

Six decades ago, in soaring oratory, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about “the fierce urgency of now.”  “This is no time for apathy or complacency,” he declared. “This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Let’s take up his banner.  For our students, there is “such a thing as being too late.”  Now is the time to take steps the steps that will bring many more to academic and post-graduation success.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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