Joe, Mauricio, and the Public Trust

Economic turmoil, change in Washington and demographic shifts make this an ideal time to rethink the way colleges recruit and admit students, write Jerome A. Lucido and Morton Owen Schapiro.

February 13, 2009

What an opportunity, as the world rediscovers its excitement about the promise of America with the arrival of President Obama. The economic and political upheaval of a most trying 2008 has given way to 2009, and we are busy asking how each of us can contribute to a revitalization of our economy and to a repositioning of America's place in the world. The need and hope for change are as plentiful and sincere as the desire to provide advice, a desire that we will not resist. Nor will we resist the notion that lasting answers to complex social problems have their roots in a higher education system that has been, and can continue to be, the best in the world.

While Joe the Plumber received much attention in the run-up to the election, let's not forget Mauricio the Cab Driver. An immigrant from El Salvador, Mauricio has spent the past 35 years running Los Angeles travelers to and from the airport to support his mother in El Salvador and to educate his four children through the public schools of Los Angeles and the community colleges of California. He will tell you that only here could his family have been changed forever in the way it has.

Will future Mauricios be forced to abandon that dream? That was the question laid out at the inaugural conference of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California this past August, and it is the subject of the report of the Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century that was released by the College Board in November.

From the resources gathered at the conference and in the task force, here is what we know.

  • Many more Mauricios are here and many more are coming.
  • Their children are born here, attend school here, and in fact represent the largest growth in school-aged children.
  • The number of college-bound students will decline precipitously in many parts of the nation over the next decade and any increase will be among students without the preparation or experience we have become accustomed to seeing in our classrooms.
  • The so-called pipeline of such students into higher education swells from kindergarten until the ninth grade and then slows to a trickle by the end of the senior year.
  • Disappointingly low college completion rates could end the long-term pattern of successive generations being more likely to have college degrees.

We know, therefore, that America is experiencing an educational as well as an economic meltdown. In fact, successfully addressing the latter depends heavily on solving the former. The pressing question is, what can be done to face the educational challenges?

Restoring public trust in education is as important as in other industries. Is it true that higher education has lost its rightful focus, that
self-interested colleges and universities are more focused on ratings wars and the like than in promoting the public good? We should remember that many of the resources that fund higher education are taxpayer-based, as public and private colleges and universities rely heavily on a combination of federal research support, state operating subsidies, and endowments fueled by the lack of taxes on capital gains and the tax-deductibility of gifts. We better be able to prove that we serve the general good or you can be sure that higher education's share of private and public funding will continue to be redirected to what will seem worthier causes.

Fortunately, there is much to make us proud. Community colleges and regional public and private colleges and universities have long educated large percentages of low-income, first-generation, and second-chance students. Moreover, recent decades have seen a democratization of the most elite of America's colleges and universities. We can easily document generations of upward mobility in America, to say nothing of the vast societal advancements with roots in research and innovation on our campuses. However, despite these efforts, social mobility has slowed and our nation's rank in terms of higher education attainment has dropped dramatically. Have
we done the work necessary to address the needs of the country today and are we well positioned to do so in the future?

It is easy to worry about the answers. Does higher education produce the K-12 teachers needed? Have we established clear standards for college preparation? Are we addressing the college readiness of a rising population of low-income college-bound students? Have we dedicated ourselves to the success of each student who enrolls? Have we pursued prestige and rankings
to the detriment of our obligation to serve the public interest?

This is not an exercise in self-flagellation. America's system of higher education is extraordinary. Still, we must carefully attend to the
conditions we see. An America able to fulfill its promise must be nurtured by a system of higher education dedicated to advancing the level of education of all its citizens.

The task is to advance a new population of students, one that has little experience with the enrollment processes and academic culture of higher education, and that has been traditionally under-prepared and underserved. The nation responded for past generations and for past societal imperatives, notably with the Morrill Act and the GI Bill, and by fostering both new campuses and growth in student financial aid for the baby-boom generation. How should we react today?

Clearly, the responsibility is shared. President Obama must use his considerable persuasive authority to convince our new families that higher education represents their way forward and is achievable - that his story is their story. Then he must lead the federal government in a concerted effort to improve college access for the most talented students. As shrinking endowments inevitably lead more colleges and universities away from need-blind/full-need policies, the plight of talented but underserved young men and women becomes even more acute. As several important reports have recently emphasized, we must develop aid programs that are easier to understand and to access. Meanwhile, state governments must adequately fund student enrollments at their public colleges and universities, even if that means worrying less about keeping affluent students in state and more about providing opportunities to the most vulnerable.

For our part, leaders in higher education can resist more fully the manner of competition that merely rearranges students among us and restricts opportunities for underserved students. Here we refer to the fact that institutional merit aid has grown faster than need-based aid in at least the last decade and that the zero-sum game of rankings appears to continue to drive key institutional decisions. Resisting these urges would leave more need-based aid and more spaces for needy students. Further, we can instruct
those in charge of our enrollments, from academic deans to admission directors to student aid administrators, to cast their reach to capture a new generation of students whose merit may be somewhat differently measured. Less emphasis on standardized testing, the elimination of testing cut scores for admission for example, and thoughtful analysis of the ability of students from urban and rural environments to contribute to and benefit from our campuses is in order.

Acting together, in the public interest, we can do much better. We recommend the papers commissioned for the inaugural conference of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice and the report of the Task Force for Admission in the 21st Century.

While no one is happy with the current economic upheaval, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. May this be the impetus to put aside individual goals and to truly work to promote the common good.


Jerome A. Lucido is vice provost for enrollment policy and management at the University of Southern California and executive director of its Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. Morton Owen Schapiro is professor of economics and president of Williams
College. This summer he will become president of Northwestern University.


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