Conventional wisdom says Asian-American applicants face higher hurdle than others at elite colleges. Federal probe raises question of whether differential standards can be proven and -- if so -- would violate the law.
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.
When I applied to college, I had used a wheelchair -- the result of a spinal cord injury that paralyzed me from the chest down -- for a little over half a year. I believed that every higher education institution was wheelchair accessible (after all, I was certainly not the first wheelchair user to go to college), and so I applied to colleges as if I were able-bodied. This, I quickly found out, was a mistake. I applied to eight institutions but only had the time and resources to visit two, one of which was a large research university.
The visit was a disaster. Multiple entrances to the main campus included staircases, and I had to circle around the campus before I found a flat entrance. Once I made it to the main campus, I wheeled over an unstable wooden plank placed over a short staircase. This, a tour guide explained, was a ramp.
I needed to use an elevator to get to another part of the campus, which was fine, except that the elevator was locked and campus security had the key. I pressed a button calling for security that was located by the elevator and waited about 15 minutes before a security guard who was doing his rounds showed up. He said the button I had been pressing was broken.
Later during that visit, I noticed an elevator to get into one of the libraries, but it was too small for my wheelchair. As if I didn’t have enough warning signs, I watched a student use his power chair across a section of cobblestones on the campus. As his chair bounced and jostled along the dangerously uneven surface, I wondered if I could withdraw my application and get a refund on the application fee. (You can’t.)
“How do wheelchair-using students get around?” I asked a tour guide.
He shrugged. “They manage.” I suppose I could’ve managed, too, for four years. But I had no guarantee that the situation wouldn’t get worse -- like at Boston College, which, in part because of renovations, has faced federal and state investigations for possible violations of accessibility laws.
Besides, the lack of concern for my needs made me feel unwelcome. Physical space and a well-functioning infrastructure on a campus cannot be overlooked, especially when one has a disability. What better way to tell a wheelchair user that they don’t belong at a college or university than by strewing the campus with stairs, broken help buttons and pitiful excuses for ramps?
Although institutions of higher education are legally required to accommodate students with disabilities, in practice much of the responsibility for finding proper accommodations falls on the students themselves. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation recommends that college applicants who are living with paralysis “visit the campus beforehand whenever possible, to determine if all of your needs and concerns can be addressed” and provides a number of questions that wheelchair-using students should ask administrators to ensure that they can practically attend a particular institution. For example, how accessible is the campus, and what are the rules with regard to relocating courses in inaccessible buildings? While this advice is useful, it also presupposes that not all colleges and universities can provide sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities.
College administrations can get away with shirking their responsibilities because the legal requirements are so vaguely worded. The Americans With Disabilities Act has been around for over 25 years, and one would think that this law would prevent any roadblocks that students with disabilities face in their quest for higher education. But the legal language of the ADA requires “reasonable accommodations,” a phrase that is very much open to interpretation.
The disability services office at the second institution I visited assured me that a wheelchair-accessible dorm room was available, and they were more than happy to show me a room. But the room was small and could not have fit my physical therapy equipment (which I use regularly to prevent blood clots, muscle atrophy and pressure sores -- some of which could result in hospitalization). It was also in a building at the bottom of a steep hill. Disability services said that this was because there was also a food court at the bottom of the hill -- but the main library, classroom buildings and another food court were at the top. To the administration, this room, with its accessible bathroom and location within an accessible building that was near food, was a reasonable accommodation. But for a wheelchair-using student who also has to get to the library and to class, it was anything but.
Two unsuccessful campus visits later, it was obvious that I would have to vet both campuses and disability services offices before I committed to attend a college or university. If campus disability services and I disagreed on what constituted a reasonable accommodation before enrollment, then that did not bode well for the following four years.
Further, I needed to know that the disability services office was going to work with other administrative bodies and the faculty. In 2014, Inside Higher Edreported that ignorance among faculty and staff members at certain colleges and universities made it difficult for students with disabilities to receive accommodations. Moreover, some students with invisible disabilities (like bipolar disorder) anticipated so much resistance that they were uncomfortable even disclosing that they needed assistance.
When students receive little administrative help, they must advocate for themselves in order to make college achievable. A Rutgers University study from 2012 found that students with disabilities are successful in college in large part due to self-advocating, mentoring and perseverance. As the tour guide at the large research university said, “They manage” -- on their own.
Yet many new college students have just barely reached legal adulthood, and self-advocacy is as new to some of them as college life is to any freshman. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, students do not need to advocate for their needs in a K-12 setting because schools must serve their educational needs. In college, students suddenly need to manage their living arrangements as well as their educational needs, and having to fight for accommodation adds extra complication to an already difficult adjustment. College also introduces new bureaucracies, and, often, larger staffs and faculties, which can be overwhelming for any student, regardless of ability.
Down With Barriers
I took the Reeve Foundation’s advice seriously and sought out a college that could accommodate my disability. After I heard from the institutions that accepted me, I made a rule for myself: if I couldn’t find the disability services website on an institution’s page within two minutes, it was probably a bad fit. Whenever I could, I checked campus accessibility maps, shuttle schedules and other transportation services -- and even topographic gradients. (It turns out that one of my potential colleges was located on a hill, so there was another application fee I wasn’t getting back.) I reached out to disability services offices to get their perspective on what constituted a reasonable accommodation, and I eventually found a fit.
The thing that boggles my mind most about the experience is that finding a college was so difficult, even though all I needed was basic wheelchair access and a room large enough for my physical therapy equipment. What if my disability had more specialized requirements? What if my disability was invisible, or what if I was concerned about disclosing my disability? What would I have done, and how would I have decided on a college?
The mainstream attitude toward applying to college dictates that students with disabilities are responsible for finding an institution that accommodates them. Currently, students with disabilities must visit every college campus they’re seriously considering -- a costly endeavor -- and although some may have never had to advocate for themselves before, they must navigate university bureaucracies and vet disability services offices to ensure a good fit. Even if the disability services office is on top of its game, students may still encounter issues with a lack of services or general ignorance of their condition among faculty members and others.
This reality is completely unacceptable. Colleges and universities should be responsible for providing and improving existing accommodations. They need to get better at this, and they need to get better soon, because a growing number of students with disabilities are enrolling in institutions of higher education.
My wheelchair should never have been a barrier to higher education. Nobody’s should. If a student has been accepted to a college, their ability to attend should never be in question. It’s time to take the burden off students with disabilities in the application process and ensure that all college and universities can accommodate their needs.
Valerie Piro is an Ed.M. student in higher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This article originally appeared on The Establishment, a multimedia site run and funded by women.
For years, the admissions and advancement offices at the University of Virginia have been communicating about applicants with ties to wealthy alumni and donors, The Washington Postfound.
Documents obtained by the Post include notes outlining the specific contributions that trace back to prospective students’ families and friends. The documents consist of 164 pages of data and reports since 2008. The so-called UVA watch list sometimes included jotted notes about a major donation (“$500k”) or a recommended decision -- “must be on WL” or “if at all possible A,” referring to “wait list” and “accepted.” The names of the applicants and their relatives were redacted from the documents, and the final admissions decisions were not included.
The 2013 records revealed that one donor was threatening to pull future contributions to the university after an applicant was put on the wait list. “According to people who have talked to him, [the person] is livid about the WL decision and holding future giving in the balance,” an advancement officer wrote in the file. “Best to resolve quickly, if possible.”
A spokesman for the university said fund-raising matters do not weigh on admissions decisions, and that the Office of Advancement receives recommendations for students by alumni and friends from time to time. “Such a practice is not unique to UVA and can be found at similar institutions,” Anthony de Bruyn, the spokesman, told the Post.
He added that the two offices do not coordinate about applicants, but that the advancement office “receives periodic updates to better inform its stewardship efforts.”
Based on the documents the Post received, 59 students applying for fall 2017 were followed by the advancement office.
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.