Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality. About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.
Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.
If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students. Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.
The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given. Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.
Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.
Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level. In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).
These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.
Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America. The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree. This should be unacceptable to a democracy. It should be unacceptable to higher education. How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll? Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.
Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it? Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them. Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college. But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient: Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.
If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives? How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us. Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.
The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services? The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.
Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress. Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.
What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth? And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is. It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.
Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented. It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need -- more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?
Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.
I prefer the spires of Yale University to the gates of Harvard University. And I’ll always dislike Clemson University because I wasn’t admitted there as a high school senior in 2008. Relatedly, as a native Texan, my sentiments on the debate between the merits of the University of Texas at Austin versus Texas A&M carry extra weight with my students, despite being grounded in the relative nightlife of Austin to College Station rather than academics or student life.
Those and many more seemingly irrational opinions about colleges and universities influenced my role as an adviser with the University of Georgia chapter of the College Advising Corps from 2013 to 2015.
Likewise, some of my advisees at North Atlanta High School heard that the dining hall food was better at Georgia State University than at Kennesaw State University, so they spurned the suburbs for downtown Atlanta. They liked Ole Miss because it offers a quintessential Southeastern Conference college experience, and to be honest, it’s hard to refute that particular claim.
For each student who measured generous merit-aid packages against the U.S. News & World Report taxonomy, a classmate chose an out-of-state private comprehensive with a fancy-sounding name and a mediocre academic reputation. Similarly, degree options and cost of attendance at institutions with perennially ranked football and basketball teams were often overlooked by prospective applicants -- although keenly, many students with Ivy League credentials enrolled at in-state flagships. In the end, guiding the college-choice process of nearly 600 17- and 18-year-olds over a two-year period was more Ouija than Monopoly. If a student entered my office in pursuit of perfect information, the game board was inevitably flipped in the air by the time they left.
Although I didn’t know it prior to entering graduate school, Patricia McDonough’s 1997 study Choosing Colleges offers empirical backing for this anecdotal experience. In it, she deduces from a series of qualitative findings that the college choice process is not “the economist’s rational choice model … nor … a policy maker’s model of informed consumer choice.” Rather, it is a teenager’s “spur of the moment” decision.
In contrast, a recent report from the Urban Institute’s Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg details in finely tuned econometric argot the “choice deserts” faced by rural college aspirants. For those aspirants, the authors argue, “true informed choice” is elusive due to unrepresentative earnings data as reported by the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
While looking at a golf ball presented to me by an admissions representative from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I posed a question on Twitter to Seton Hall higher education professor Robert Kelchen, who had shared a Wall Street Journal blog post on the report: “What evidence is there that students actually use earnings data?” Kelchen directed me to a working paper from Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith that uses the introduction of the online College Scorecard tool in September 2015 as a predictor of SAT score-sending behavior to inform conclusions about the causal effect of earnings data on college choice.
Technical points aside, I cannot help but think what would have happened had a student walked into my office and asked about earnings data from Yale and Harvard. Although the College Scorecard reports Harvard graduates’ average salary after attending to be more than $20,000 higher than that of graduating Yalies, an advisee of mine would also be factoring in architectural history and proximity to Italian bakeries and pizza in New Haven. Neoclassical economic approaches to college choice duly provide evidence for certain behaviors under a wide swath of theoretically and empirically debatable assumptions. But they’re most notably missing what one might call, continuing the Yale theme, neo-Gothic variables: peculiar atmospheric factors like the ethereal bellow of clock tower chimes on a foggy autumn morning or the dulled fluorescence of cloistered library stacks.
Such factors, noted Burton R. Clark, the late professor emeritus of higher education and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, are components of collective belief in an institution’s organizational saga. The idea of choice deserts then ostensibly applies to many of my former advisees at a public urban high school surrounded by dozens colleges and universities -- students whose access to the equally important subjective aspects of a campus was often limited to posters in my office that featured names of colonial patrons in elegant serif fonts amid a semicircle of foliage-drenched Adirondack chairs.
To test a hypothesis of the significance of noneconomic variables in the choice process, an unscientific experiment could go something like this: provide a golf ball embossed with the logo of the University of St. Andrews, 4,000 miles from Atlanta, along with the earnings data from institutions within a 25-mile radius of the I-285 perimeter near the city. Ask college-aspiring North Atlanta High School students to rate each institution based on their interest in attending.
As St. Andrews shares the name of one of the most famous sports venues on earth and bears a shield fit for a feudal lord, I imagine that many capricious high school students would evaluate it relatively favorably next to a list of eventual five-figure salaries. And when the time comes to decide on a college, what exactly will have transpired that makes the decision any more or less rational?
All that is to say that, barring unassailable neurophysiological evidence, factors at the forefront of the mind of the college-choosing teenager will continue to remain impenetrable to even the most sophisticated empirical analyses. To that end -- whether a counselor preaching to a high school auditorium or a researcher grappling with opaque elements of demography and human geography -- simple consideration of the social and structural quirks that make college choice such an enigmatic process seems apt for ensuring the most effective postsecondary access policies and practices for those in the government, academic and nonprofit sectors.
Austin Lyke is a graduate student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. He was a college adviser with the Georgia College Advising Corps from 2013 to 2015.
Back in 2001, I worked in the New York University admissions office. We were very well positioned to have a terrific incoming class.
Then Sept. 11 happened.
I remember huddling with my colleagues, time and time again, trying to work our way through this unprecedented, impossibly challenging year with fewer applications and distraught, distracted applicants.
All of our projections, plans and benchmarks were thrown into disarray.
The uncertainty of the aftermath of Sept. 11 vexed us all fall. How could we chart a new course when one day our troops were being deployed and the next we had anthrax peppering the desks of journalists just up the road from our campus?
But as winter turned to spring, the world seemed to settle down a bit, and we were able to get students focused on filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms and visiting our campus. We landed our class that year, but my colleagues and I were well aware that, had Sept. 11 been April 11, we never would have been successful.
Fast forward 16 years: now, as a managing director of Royall & Company, my conversations with enrollment leaders these past months have reminded me of that long fall of 2001. Our campus partners are filled with concerns about their enrollment and revenue projections, and yet many are also confounded by the unpredictability of what might happen tomorrow.
Two major themes have emerged this year. First, early FAFSA activity has changed students’ behavior and has made forecasting enrollment outcomes extremely difficult. Second, the political world has many confronting potential losses of revenue from international students and changes to federal student aid.
Let’s take a look at those challenges and potential shortfalls and consider a few tactics that could help those of you involved in college and university admissions to mitigate them.
Forecasting Enrollment Outcomes
Ever since the FAFSA filing window widened, the volume of activity has surpassed most enrollment professionals’ estimations. Because filing a FAFSA has traditionally been a strong indicator of student intent, this year’s activity is difficult to read. Some colleges and universities exceeded their final FAFSA volumes before Jan. 1, while others are seeing comparable activity to last year.
What to make of this? It’s really hard to tell. One thing is certain -- you will need to think carefully about how much weight you’re ascribing to the FAFSA in your predictions this year. Other factors, such as campus visits and your track record with a student’s high school, are likely to be more stable indicators this year and perhaps worthy of additional weight.
On just about every campus, international students bring more revenue per person than traditional domestic students. With growing evidence that international students are less willing -- and, crucially, less able in the wake of the new administration’s policies -- to travel to the United States, enrollment teams will have to work creatively to replace their lost revenue.
Whether international students make up 2 percent or 10 percent of your class, you’ll need to add more than one domestic student for each international student you think might not show up at freshman orientation, given the revenue differential. And you should probably also factor in some retention challenges, too. Some Royall & Company partner institutions have expressed concerns that current international students may choose to depart because of potential limitations on travel or fears triggered by the changing tenor of American political rhetoric. And some paranoia on this front is certainly warranted.
Federal Aid Support
My colleagues on campuses are asking important -- and alarming -- questions: What would be the budget or retention impact of a $1,000 cut in the top Pell Grant? What would happen if Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants went away? What if the interest subsidy on student loans disappears?
We already know that even students with a grade point average above 3.0 who lose $1,000 to $1,500 in financial aid are 2.5 percent more likely to drop out of college than their peers who have little or no change in aid.
In the past, we might never have imagined a world where all of this could happen quickly. But we’re in a different climate today. Higher education’s budget is large; it is an easy target for cost-containment conversations in Washington. If you haven’t started thinking about a contingency plan on your campus, you should do so right away. Confront your toughest question: What additional enrollment revenues would you need to offset these potentialities?
What to Do?
We cannot predict when -- if ever -- enrollment teams will regain traction on solid, familiar ground.
In the interim, however, here are a few established strategies that can help you find your students and meet your enrollment and revenue goals even in this unpredictable time.
Build your bandwidth. Let me assure you that it’s not too late to grow your applicant pool. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that late engagement of high school seniors (even into March and April) is possible. Scour your FAFSA applications for potential stealth applicants -- students who don’t show up in a college’s inquiry pool -- and proactively prod them to apply with simple, well-timed messages. And remember that transfer students from community colleges are an often undertapped population of late applicants.
Research by our parent company, EAB (formerly the Education Advisory Board), a best-practices firm working with more than 1,100 educational institutions, indicates that transfer students are less expensive to recruit and enroll at 10 to 20 percent higher tuition rates, because most colleges allocate more of their tuition discounting funds for first-year students. Transfer students are also 5 to 20 percent more likely to graduate than students recruited directly out of high school.
Persist. According to Royall & Company testing, 32 percent of all deposits come from students who respond after your fifth message. So don’t worry about annoying students. If they aren’t interested, they’ll let you know. The ones that you’re not hearing back from might be just as preoccupied with the changing dynamics in Washington and across the globe as you are. Keep at it. Target the students who started but did not complete their applications. Strategic text message nudges that prodded noncompleters to finish either their Common Application or an institution’s custom application increased response rates by 63 percent -- a boost that carried through to the admission stage.
And always keep students at the center of your messages. Royall & Company tests show student-focused messaging can result in a 50 percent increase in response rate over institution-centered copy. Student-centered copy, for example, would tell prospective students that they can be the architect of their own education, as opposed to talking about the institution’s flexible curriculum.
Engage parents. Don’t forget about the parents of your prospective students. In Royall & Company surveys, parents consistently emerge as the most influential figures in students’ college decision making, significantly more so than high school and college counselors. Our research shows that students who provide a parent’s email address to a college or university during the recruitment phase are 52 percent more likely to apply to the institution. Parents can also be your best partner in driving the activity you most care about. Our tests show that parents have a four times higher response rate to FAFSA communications than students.
But don’t just ask students to involve their parents. Think about a parent recruitment strategy that reaches out to prospective parents directly. Enlist some of your current students’ parents to call or host informational meetings for the parents of prospective students. You will most likely find that parents are eager to help you and will welcome the positive, hopeful vision of their child’s future that is the consistent core of every institution’s mission.
Faced with new levels and kinds of enrollment risk, I encourage admissions teams to seek out these and other tested, effective enrollment strategies. A focus on data and research helped my colleagues and me in 2001, and I believe it can also help institutions in 2017 and beyond.
What’s more: I believe higher education is in a better spot now. The situation in 2001 was thankfully fairly limited. But today there are thousands of institutions coping with ambiguities we’ve not seen, nor could anticipate, before. As a result, there are many lessons to be learned from across institutions, and I am constantly surprised by how many colleges and universities are willing to share what works, with us and with one another. No institution should feel the need to go it alone.
Peter Farrell is a managing director at Royall & Company, a division of EAB focused on data-enabled enrollment management.
College Board pilots system to help colleges make admissions decisions about who is disadvantaged -- and evidence from one college suggests 20 percent of decisions might be different. But lack of emphasis on race concerns some advocates.