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.
Duke punishes, but lets return to campus, the student who placed a noose on a tree. In student's apology, he claims ignorance of the meaning of a noose -- an explanation that only some on campus accept.
Hundreds of years ago, college leaders were faculty members who regularly taught undergraduates alongside their administrative duties. Even a century ago, someone might go from full-time professor to president, with teaching experience fresh in mind, and then return to the faculty.
Today, college presidents’ time is easily consumed by a wide range of responsibilities: fund-raising; media, community and government relations; routine and crisis communication in a world of social media and a constant news cycle; cheerleading for the institution to a diverse constituent base; showing up at countless campus events; managing budgets; improving morale and reputation; providing strategic leadership and vision; and more.
Because the work of presidents has grown exponentially, taken on relentless speed and become increasingly distant from the classroom, many believe that presidents no longer have any place as professors. Although I had been an award-winning, tenured full professor for many years, and more recently as a dean and provost guided doctoral research and taught a graduate seminar, I had to persuade my faculty union to approve me to teach at my current university. And, once approved, even though my only experience teaching freshmen was well before our current class of students was born, I was limited to a 100-level freshman class (designed to teach critical thinking, analysis and effective communication). No problem -- I wanted to teach a first-year seminar because I suspected I would learn a great deal from doing it, and I did.
Freshmen feel vulnerable. I developed a new course with attention and care, and took it through the steps of the curriculum review process, but walking into a classroom with 17- and 18-year-olds, I felt like they did. I was nervous and uncertain of my ability to succeed even though I interact regularly with freshmen in formal and informal settings outside the classroom and even became a student and took a bagpipe class with undergraduates last spring. What if I couldn’t create with them the safe but challenging learning community I envisioned? What if no one participated willingly in discussions after I made them move the rows of desks into a circle and posed well-designed, thought-provoking questions? Or if they hated the book I selected? What if their entire experience of school had programmed the freshmen not to think for themselves, not to look at their own experiences objectively and not to consider others’ views? At some point in the semester, each of these what ifs and many other unanticipated challenges occurred, forcing honest reflection and ongoing revision of plans.
Lesson learned: As presidents protected by layers of institutional bureaucracy, we forget how vulnerable our students feel and how much their uncertainty displaces engagement with learning. Standing in front of a class strips away the layers of protection and develops empathy that is important when we are confronted in the president’s office by students in crisis and frustrated families.
Freshmen need hope of success. Characterizations of traditional-aged freshmen can be disheartening -- they are always plugged into devices, have limited face-to-face social skills, are overprotected by hovering parents and care only about their future earnings. Indeed, these characterizations were true of some of my students some of the time. More importantly, as I was trying to guide them into the lofty ideals of liberal education that underpin the first-year seminar, they were still developing cognitively and emotionally. This often masquerades as a lack of commitment -- at times they misjudged, couldn’t anticipate consequences, didn’t perceive others’ perspectives and seemed incapable of self-regulation.
Although there were many moments when I questioned it, they taught me that freshmen do, in fact, care deeply about college. They care because college costs a lot, even at a public university, because they understand the role of higher education in preparing them for better professional and personal lives, and largely because they are trying to convince themselves that they can succeed socially and academically in college and in life. This was not easy for my students (half of them first generation and from low-income families), who have seen too many counterexamples of college graduates working low-wage “high school jobs” and teenage single-parent dropouts.
Lesson learned: Presidents worried about retention should not overlook the importance to freshmen of simply nurturing the tenuous hope that they can succeed in college.
Many freshmen aren’t prepared for college. The first-year seminar is intended to guide students into understanding college expectations, thinking critically and analytically, problem solving, communicating effectively, and handling difficult and challenging material. At Edinboro University, like many other colleges, these outcomes are approached through various topics that engage freshmen because they are “relatable,” as my students were so fond of saying. My seminar topic was College: What, Why and How, and we read pseudonymous anthropologist Rebekah Nathan’s book, My Freshman Year, as our core text alongside higher education and popular news and social media. These texts launched honest conversations about the purpose and culture of college and about national issues in higher education, and students enjoyed reading and talking about topics so close to their daily lives. But they also got bogged down in more difficult sections of the book.
They found the related research, statistics and other contextual information to be “boring” and “useless,” missing the way in which this information illuminated and provided insight and texture for their lived experiences. In high school, many had learned to “just skip the hard parts” and one admitted he had never read a book before, relying on plot summaries instead. Later in the semester they laughed when I said that I expected “a short essay answer, not just two or three paragraphs” on the final exam. In high school, they explained, three paragraphs constituted a full essay. By “essay” I was suggesting the deliberate construction of a coherent, well-reasoned argument, and they saw it as a demand to pen three paragraphs.
Lesson learned: Faculty concern about current freshman students’ poor preparation is not just nostalgic grumbling; these concerns are valid and presidents need to understand how intensely challenging and time-consuming it is to work with students who may be capable but whose high school preparation is sorely lacking.
Freshmen learn a great deal outside the classroom. We read about how the students Nathan studied balanced academic and social activities, and we talked about achieving the balance. When I asked my freshmen to go around the circle and state the percentage of time they spent on classes, homework, projects, studying and the like, the overwhelming majority stated that they spent only about 25 percent of their waking hours on anything academic (some even less), and this was probably inflated given that the question was asked in a classroom setting.
They dedicated their time primarily to social and occasional extracurricular activities and relaxing with Netflix. “Hanging out with friends most of the time” was justified as allowing them to “network for future jobs.” I cringed at these revelations, which too often were reflected in the quality of some students’ weekly writing assignments. But I also noted that even though they said they had come to college primarily to pursue a major that would prepare them for a good job, most also observed that they learned more outside of the classroom than in it. And, of course, that’s an important benefit of face-to-face residential college education. Learning to get along with strange roommates from unfamiliar places, to be a member of a much more diverse community than they were comfortable with and especially learning to manage their time wisely were all significant and necessary tasks for the freshmen.
Lesson learned: As an academic I had always assumed that what happened in the college classroom was primary. Presidents need to be reminded that what students learn in college is much broader than their classroom performance.
Freshmen change and grow dramatically. Managing their time in the context of extensive freedom and responsibility (they had, for the first time, to do their own laundry or control spending on entertainment) was a major stumbling block for my freshmen. And then there were new friends -- for many the first peers they had ever met who, unlike high school classmates, were “geeks” or “artists” or “different” like them and understood and accepted them for who they were. Even though the freshmen knew they should set aside time to study, many didn’t have the motivation and self-regulation skills to manage the pull of the social and were always behind on schoolwork. More than once I received a weeks-late assignment from a student with the message, “I know this is too late to count but I wanted to do it anyway.”
At the beginning of every class I had students do a brief informal written assignment related to the reading for the day, because I knew they needed a lot of practice with writing and because it signaled for them that they had to do the reading assignments and show up on time. And it gave everyone a chance at success -- if you were in class and had done the reading, you could do this assignment and do it well. Informal writing also allowed them to see that they could think and respond critically and thoughtfully to the reading and that they had something to say, so it laid the groundwork for overcoming an aptly misnamed “hate dread” of speaking in class. For nearly all, in their writing and in class discussions, opinion was conflated with fact and critical analysis of ideas and acceptance of complexity were new. Still, throughout the semester many openly, sometimes with shame, recognized and tried to shed their own stereotypical and ungrounded notions and develop academic habits of mind and inclusive attitudes.
Lesson learned: As presidents we talk a lot about the transformational impact of an education at our universities. Teaching freshmen lent credibility to what I say. They do grow and change significantly over even one semester -- we are, in fact, changing lives.
Freshmen do some of their best work for peer audiences. I worried that my freshmen’s long-term project presentations might be a disaster, because as hard as I tried to structure their presentations by requiring them to meet with me to discuss topics, submit information resources and determine a mode of presentation well ahead, multiple students’ project topics changed a day or two before they were signed up to present. Yet over the course of four full class sessions, they surprised me with very creative and interesting presentations that were courageous, honest and powerful, on topics that were very close to their hearts and minds, including suicide, sexual health in college, being LGBTQ on campus and being physically disabled as a college student. I was surprised to discover that presentation to an audience of peers is a powerful motivator that resulted in some students doing their best work of the semester.
Lesson learned: It is easy for presidents to question the motives of professors who devote significant amounts of class time to group work and presentation by students rather than “actually teaching,” but for many students the goal of presenting effectively to peers drives engagement and success. Further, they have surprisingly high standards when evaluating peer presentations.
Teaching a first-year seminar was an enormous amount of work on top of my “day job,” but I relished it. As a university president, I miss the challenges and rewards of teaching. Many of my freshmen regularly came to class 20 minutes early just to talk. They worried if I wasn’t there early myself and once sent a student looking for me five minutes before class started. They asked if I’d teach another course for them next year or continue the class into the spring -- flattering, but I worried maybe I wasn’t challenging them enough. They even reflected with empathy on what they read in the assigned text about professors planning extensively and then feeling like failures when students don’t participate in class. Still, I experienced a recurring feeling throughout the semester that I was working a lot harder than my freshmen.
In some ways I was, because I insisted on providing specific written feedback on all of their weekly assignments and because I wrestled constantly with what to do about cell phones in class, how to engage the perpetually disengaged, and similar challenges. It was difficult to give a poor grade to students I liked and cared about even when that grade was indisputably earned. And when I faced an instance of plagiarism, I felt like my trust was violated to its very core. I worked hard because I cared deeply, but my students worked hard, too, and I saw it demonstrated in so many ways throughout the semester. That made the planning, responding to writing, emotional and academic support, and personal investment not only worthwhile but also essential.
Essential to remembering why we choose to work with college students to begin with, essential to respecting the depth and intensity of faculty work when you haven’t done it in a while, essential to appreciating the striving and the dreams of even our most aloof undergraduates, and essential to recognizing how important it is to have professors who simply but genuinely care about their students. “Going off that,” as my freshmen often said, I’m now a better professor and a better president because of lessons I learned from the undergraduate classroom.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.