This week I will attend my 14th annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education  (ASHE) in Charlotte, NC. Each year I learn about which research topics are of interest to this community of scholars and try to gain a sense of which issues have the most potential to change the way we conceive problems or the way higher education professionals practice. I am always more interested in systemic changes that have the potential to alleviate serious problems that confront the enterprise of higher education rather than those that only involve a sub-unit of an institution or special sub-sets of students.
I am headed to Charlotte eager to engage my colleagues on one particular issue — something I call policy incongruence. That is, discordant higher education policies that influence public systems of higher education. Put simply, I am referring to instances where state higher education officials formally promulgate the importance of improving access, while the policies that govern public colleges and universities suggest or achieve the opposite by increasing tuition, ratcheting up admission standards, and effectively killing need-based aid.
In just the last five years the nation has become obsessed with regaining numerical supremacy by reclaiming the highest percentage, among industrial nations, of adults with a post-secondary degree or credential. No American could publically argue that any other ranking except first place is good enough. Most pundits know nothing about higher education in Finland, Poland, or Netherlands. We just know they shouldn’t be ahead of us. I sometimes worry that the race is for the sake of being number one rather than systematically improving the performance of American higher education. This kind of scotoma — a permanent or temporary area of diminished sight in the field of vision—is also what potentially contributes to policy incongruence.
There are some major blind spots that must be reconciled with public policy if America is to have a realistic chance of improving its international ranking of college graduates. The fastest growing populations in America remain the least likely to earn a college degree. There is no way the nation can achieve its aspirations without seriously addressing college completion among poor and minority students. Despite this fact, the following describes our current reality: a) too little has been done to improve college readiness among this population in K-12 systems; b) college access remains stymied by the increasing cost of attendance and friable financial support for growing numbers of poor students; and c) commitments to support students in college with services we know improve their chances of graduating are provided inconsistently.
More telling, perhaps, is that states facing demonstrable increases in minority student enrollment have not made adjustments in resource allocations to reflect a commitment to making serious gains in college completion. The state of Texas, for example, currently provides the lion’s share of public funds to institutions that enroll and graduate comparatively marginal numbers of minority students.
In 2009 Texas A&M University received $468 million in state appropriations. Three percent of Texas A&M’s enrollment was African American and 13% was Latino. In the same year, public institutions in Texas that enrolled and graduated greater numbers of minority students, received far fewer public dollars. The University of Texas-Pan American graduated the largest number of Latino students in the state with an enrollment that was 87% Latino. They received $74 million of the state’s appropriation. Prairie View A&M University graduated the most African American students among public institutions in Texas with an enrollment that is 87% African American. They received $61 million in public funding. This trend is apparent in several other states that have been deemed battle grounds for minority college completion.
I know, I know…. there is more to these numbers and a good deal of political nuance to understand for determining how state funds should be rightly appropriated to public colleges and universities across different states. I totally get that. My point here is that conversations, arguments, or concentration on making large-scale public policy adjustments are not as prevalent as the incongruence between the stated goals and current policies.