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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has a demand: "We need a culture change in higher education now."
In a speech made at a conference attended by university and college presidents and other leaders in higher education on Thursday, Cardona said that elite rankings are a "joke" and that more attention needs to be focused on the institutions that serve the nation's less-affluent students.
"It's a cruel irony that institutions that serve the most students with the most to gain from a college degree have the fewest resources to invest in student success," he said. Of elite universities, Cardona said, "You compete for the most affluent students by luring them in with generous aid because the most well-prepared students have the best SAT scores and graduate on time. You seek favor from your peers from other elite schools with expensive dinners and lavish events because their opinions carry clout in surveys. And you invest in the best campus experiences that money can buy because the more graduates that become donors, the more points you score."
In order to change this, he said that leaders in higher education need to "embrace a new vision of college excellence," which involves creating spaces and resources that are inclusive and meet the needs of underrepresented students.
Cardona announced new initiatives from the Education Department to boast completion rates at historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, including a $5 million competitive grant program and the expansion of the Project Success initiative.
The grant program, called the College Completion Fund, will award a maximum of $1 million to fund programs at HBCUs, MSIs, tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions for projects aimed at improving retention, transfers and completion. The Education Department said that grant money should be used to help students who are close to graduation or to reengage students who withdrew from college during the pandemic.
The money for the program was approved by Congress for the Education Department earlier this year.
Community colleges, which faced the worst enrollment declines as a result of the pandemic, will be given priority for the grant money, said a press release.
"Campuses are incredibly excited about this new program, despite its small size. Without question, community colleges that receive funding will be able to enhance student success, as their efforts are so often constrained because of a lack of adequate institutional resources," said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
Although completion rates have risen over the last six years, experts say that pandemic-related enrollment declines are likely to cause completion rates to decrease in the coming years. Students of color are more likely to face difficulty completing college. Among undergraduates, 60 percent of Black students and half of Latino students leave college before obtaining their degree. On the other hand, 36 percent of white students and only 26 percent of Asian students leave college prior to graduation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Cardona said many students who leave college fall into "postsecondary purgatory." "They earn some credits but no degree and they have student debt that they cannot afford and a limited path to higher paying jobs," said Cardona.
Compared to elite universities, Cardona said that many colleges that serve underrepresented populations lack the funding to address issues related to student success.
"Too often our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps to opportunity for all Americans," said Cardona. "Stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence."
Cardona also announced the expansion of Project Success, an initiative that helps 200 HBCUs, MSIs, TCUs, and HSIs access services to improve student outcomes. The program was set to expire next month and will be renewed for an additional three years.
The secretary also provided higher education leaders with some advice heading into the fall semester. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, enrollment declined a total of 6.6 percent, a loss of over a million students according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
"If you serve students that are in greatest need, those were also the students impacted the most by the pandemic. So we have double the work to get those students back," said Cardona. "If I could ask you to do one thing when you go back it would be to maintain the level of urgency you had the last two years."
He urged colleges to continue to facilitate partnerships that were formed during the pandemic to help support students beyond academic needs. "We have students who are hungry, you have students who are housing insecure, you have students who struggle from mental health needs. If you think college completion doesn't involve that, you are missing the point."