A little over a year ago, our enrollment team at Augustana College met in retreat to discuss the anticipated impact of prior-prior year submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or early FAFSA, as it is called now. We completed a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis of what we perceived as entwined in this big change to the financial aid and recruitment timetable. After considerable discussion, we created new timetables, developed a new communication sequence for our prospective and current students, established new and updated old systems, and took a deep breath as we faced an uncertain future with new time frames and a new process.
As we spoke with visiting families during the spring and summer months, we were pleasantly surprised by how many seemed to be informed and fully aware that the FAFSA would now be available for submission on Oct. 1, rather than Jan. 1 -- and that applicants will be able to use income information from two-year-old completed tax returns rather than sometimes incomplete information from the previous year. The high level of awareness continued into the fall. All visit days and high school visits confirmed that families, school counselors and other influencers were aware, had adjusted timetables and were itching to submit the FAFSA earlier than ever before.
Oct. 1 came quickly, and so did the FAFSA submissions. It seemed as if many families were sitting at the computer ready to submit the infamous form in the same way many of us waited to order tickets for Broadway’s Hamilton, refreshing their browsers until they could get in and get it done.
In fact, the early volume of FAFSAs submitted from prospective and current students stunned Augustana’s office of financial aid. All the table tents in the dining hall, the umpteen emails we sent out, our first-ever FAFSA print mailer and the inclusion of the FAFSA timeline in our application instructions had worked. We are rolling in FAFSAs and have exceeded last year’s total volume from first-year students by 40 percent.
Given the high conversion/yield rate for FAFSA submitters in the past cycle, it’s time to break out the champagne. I mean, we’ve done it. We reconditioned the marketplace, prospective students and their families are following our directions, and now we just need to execute. Right?
I confess that I’ve enthusiastically shared the volume numbers with faculty and staff members, the president, and the chair of the Augustana Board of Trustees, and I even tweeted about it early on. But I also admit that I don’t know whether our numbers are strong or soft indicators. Perhaps, I suspect, they are a little of both.
And as I dig into the data, I am increasingly convinced that these lead indicators require very cautious interpretation and should temper my exuberance. Let me offer a couple of examples.
First, because of the U.S. Department of Education’s caution about establishing early timetables for submission, and the potential impact on underserved populations, I have been watching FAFSA submissions for applicants of color carefully and am cautious about what I see. Currently, we continue to see trailing rates of submission for students of color in the applicant pool, with more than 40 percent of those students who applied for admissions not yet filing the FAFSA. The department’s caution is relevant to all of us, and we must now ask what we can do to increase the filer rate among this important population.
Second, nearly 20 percent of those students who have submitted the FAFSA have not yet applied to my college for admission. Some of these FAFSA submitters are even coded as having asked us to cease communication with them. Now, a universal truth in college admissions is that 100 percent of the students who don’t apply don’t enroll. While there certainly is plenty of time for these hundreds of FAFSA submitters to still apply (and I sure hope they do), it’s also reasonable to conclude that we are not a serious consideration for them, making this usually strong indicator meaningless.
There is more to investigate as we look at these very early indicators, but only time will tell us what all of this means.
Looking at the data, I wonder if the Department of Education and all of those who pushed for early FAFSA may have just created the newest fast-application program. Fast-application programs for college admissions are frequently criticized for inflating applicant pools and making it too simple and too convenient for students to apply. These same programs make it difficult for new users in college admissions to interpret what an increase in volume may really mean to yield and enrollments.
Think about it. We’ve made it easier to submit the FAFSA. We’ve aggressively communicated about submitting the FAFSA. We’ve created a marketed FAFSA with the IRS data-retrieval tool. We have systemwide partners, like the Common Application, more effectively encouraging the submission of the FAFSA. We’ve done our best to better align the cost and admissions decision.
It seems we are doing all of the right things. But are we reaching all the right students and families --those most likely to choose Augustana and thrive here?
I am a believer in making the entire process more transparent and less complicated, and in aligning the cost and search process. But I wonder if early FAFSA will just add a new complication for colleges and families -- and more noise that must be interpreted and filtered. Only time will tell.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president at Augustana College.
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.
Application season will soon be upon us, and graduating high school seniors across the country will be in the thick of deciding where to apply to college. Unfortunately, after they are accepted and enrolled, many won’t go on to earn a degree -- especially if they are black or Latino. According to the Digest of Educational Statistics, only about 41 percent of black and 52 percent of Latino students obtain their bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, compared to 61 percent of white and 69 percent of Asian students.
I have spent the past three years tracking more than 500 black and Latino students across their first three years of college to better understand the factors that could increase their likelihood of degree attainment. Over the course of this work, one question kept coming to mind: How did so many of them arrive on a campus having thought so little about why go to college -- and why that college in particular?
The answer came from understanding how their high schools failed them in the college application process. Most received what I now call mechanical advising: maximum logistical assistance but minimal decision-making support.
For example: Claudia is both a first-generation American, born to parents who immigrated as teenagers, and a first-generation college student. She relied on her high school for everything concerning applying to college. Although she was an excellent student, graduating fourth in her class of more than 800 students, it was not until senior year that she received guidance on applying to college. Even then, most of that guidance came in the form of schoolwide announcements and application support for the entire class.
Claudia credits her senior year AP English Literature teacher with getting her into college: “If it wasn’t for [her] I probably wouldn’t even have applied or known how to apply. She was a big role in how I did everything, because one of the assignments was actually to apply to colleges. Every step of the way was an assignment, so I did it all.”
Mechanical advising is designed to make sure increasing numbers of high school graduates enroll somewhere, anywhere. Claudia recalls: “They said, ‘Go to college.’ They always announced on the megaphone for morning announcements. They would tell you deadlines, ‘apply, apply, apply.’”
The Pew Research Center reported that, from 1996 to 2012, college enrollment increased by 240 percent among Latinos and 72 percent among blacks, compared to 12 percent for whites. While efforts to increase college enrollment are apparently succeeding, is this system helping if we are simply increasing the numbers of blacks and Latinos who won’t get a degree?
Because college has large financial and personal costs, the past few decades of broadening access without increasing graduation rates has created a college-going context that could be particularly detrimental for students from economically disadvantaged families. Expansions in college access have coincided with rising college costs and a shifting of student aid funding away from grants that don’t have to be repaid to loans that can’t even be discharged in a bankruptcy. Essentially, students who do not obtain a degree still walk away with the burden of college debt. The most recent numbers from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found undergraduate borrowers who dropped out over a decade ago had incurred a median debt of $7,000 in loans before leaving college. Given the steep increase in college costs, it is likely that today’s student borrowers who drop out are leaving with significantly more debt.
Expanding access to student debt without also increasing the likelihood that students will graduate means not only is college more of a financial risk, but increasing numbers of low-income students are exposed to that risk. Because of the strong correlation between race and ethnicity and income, the likelihood of dropping out is not spread evenly across all racial and ethnic groups, as the percentages of students earning a bachelor’s degree show.
For black and Latino students in particular, there is one important thing to add to the list of factors to consider in the college decision: How many students of their racial or ethnic group has their potential college graduated in the recent past?
Using overall graduation rates can be misleading. For example, based on the six-year graduation rate of five cohorts of freshmen who enrolled from 2004 to 2008, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities had an overall graduation rate of 73 percent. But that dropped to 65 percent for Latino students and an even lower 52 percent for black students. Concordia University Wisconsin had an overall graduation rate of 59 percent that dropped to 31 percent for Latino students and, again, an even lower 20 percent for black students.
The pendulum has swung too far. The current narrative that pushes all students toward a bachelor’s degree has resulted in mechanical advising that is not in the best interests of many students. The alternative advising model asks counselors to be both encouraging and discouraging -- encourage all students to develop postsecondary education plans and discourage aspects of plans that are implausible and imprudent. That means going beyond merely providing application support and engaging in discussions about the costs and benefits of college, and how various certifications and degrees fit into a spectrum of occupational trajectories.
More immediately, students and their families can be armed with vital pieces of information that will enable them to make better decisions about which college or university they should choose to take on the student debt they are about to accrue. Comparing institutions based on their graduation rates is rarely on the list of things that students do when deciding where to apply and which admission offer to accept. But as students and parents are armed with more information, it increasingly will be.
For their part, universities would do well to embrace the understanding that retention is as or even more important than recruitment. A high retention rate is itself a competitive recruitment tool, and an increasingly important success metric that determines government funding. For administrators eyeing the bottom line, it is more cost-effective to retain those already enrolled than invest in the replacement of those who have dropped out. One examination of the fiscal benefits of student retention found that retention initiatives are estimated to be three to five times more cost-effective than recruitment initiatives. One example found that at the University of St. Louis, each 1 percent increase in the first-year retention rate generated approximately $500,000 in revenue by the time those students graduated.
Graduation rates aren’t the only aspect of college that matters, but it is one tangible number that prospective students can use to guide their decisions. Admitted freshmen should enroll at the college with the highest graduation rate for their racial or ethnic groups. And if all of the institutions to which they have been admitted have low graduation rates for their racial or ethnic groups, we should expect them to think twice about the amount of debt they will need to incur.
As the costs and benefits of getting a college degree continue to rise, so do the stakes associated with making the decision to enroll in college and the decision about which college to attend. These two decisions are intimately intertwined -- students can no longer be encouraged to enroll at any college and at any cost just for the sake of being counted among the college-going population. And colleges, for the long term, can little afford not to help them succeed -- and graduate -- once they get there.
Micere Keels is an associate professor in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago. She is a faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and member of the Committee on Education.