How to Rebuild America

Cultivating underserved students is the key to American prosperity, writes Donald Saleh.

April 10, 2009

A recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research points out that throughout the first half of the 20th century, each new cohort of Americans was more likely to graduate from high school than the preceding one -- a trend that has increased worker productivity and fueled American economic growth. In the past 25 years, growing wage differentials between high school graduates and dropouts increased the economic incentives for high school graduation. So it's surprising that at a time when the premium for skills has increased, so too has the high school dropout rate.

Talk of this growing economic void between Americans is nothing new. But what does bear new consideration is the significance this void has on the nation as it struggles to maintain its status as a world power. That’s because survival and success in a global economy rely highly on skill development and knowledge. Therefore, the prosperity of the United States is interdependent on the education attainment level of our population.

Both the National Center for Education Statistics and the College Board have recently published data that show a steady decline in the number of high school graduates. This decline is projected to last to 2014, based on the persistence of existing patterns of enrollment, progression, and completion.

But despite the dire news, the connection between the economy and education is actually a good thing. Not because our country is successfully stemming high school dropout rates (we’re not — one out of four American high school students today quits school). And not because all of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups are attending college at correspondingly higher levels (they’re not).

Clearly, my optimism cannot be based in these trends. I’ve weathered enough population bubbles to know that our present ride is far from over. Nor is my optimism based in laissez faire ambivalence. After all, it’s tough not to acknowledge the value of higher education when the disparity in lifetime earnings between those holding college degrees vs. those with high school diplomas now averages a million dollars. What fuels my conviction is the knowledge that these trends are far from inevitable.

Consider, for example, the NCES’s finding that the next decade will bring a steady decline in college enrollments. This drop is predicated on the assumption that high school drop-out rates will not change for various demographic groups. But as the number of high school students decreases, the number of students from historically underrepresented groups attending high school will increase. Concurrently, the number of high school students from lower income families will increase while students from higher income families will decrease. These groups, the largest of which include Hispanics and African Americans, historically have not been served well by our school systems or colleges and universities.

If we are to recover the health of the economy, then the potential of underserved students must be met with carefully crafted policies to increase college-going rates. While this is especially true among groups that traditionally have not felt or been welcome at the table, such intervention must also consider the shrinking proportion of white, non-Hispanics in today’s high schools.

As is so often the case, bold vision can be found in individual acts. Consider the remarkable generosity of George Weiss, a successful financier who committed his own funds to establish the Say Yes to Education foundation. Say Yes combines the promise of free college tuition with comprehensive scholastic and personal support from grades K through 12 with a goal to significantly increase high school and college graduation rates for at-risk youth. The 20-year-old program has been successful in several cities, and is now expanding by partnering with a consortium of like-minded universities and colleges. The University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Lesley, and Syracuse University are four of the national leaders in this effort.

Other higher education institutions are meeting the challenge in different ways. Harvard University has eliminated loans for low-income students. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and others have increased financial aid to low- and middle-income families. And still more have replaced some or all of loans with grants.

These efforts represent significant steps in the right direction. But the mere institution of programs and policies is not enough. In order to realize the potential of high-achieving students from all groups, colleges must strategically evaluate and expand efforts to recruit, enroll, retain and graduate students. Fundamentally, this means bringing the news of accessibility to students who have been relentlessly conditioned to understand that college was never a possibility, and then convincing them that this financial and academic support is really theirs to own.

As with many seemingly monumental tasks, success can be achieved through grassroots methods. Recruiters must be present in schools and communities that for years have been overlooked or ignored. Colleges must examine admissions standards to adopt a more holistic approach to evaluation; one not based heavily on standardized test scores that traditionally favor students with extraordinary financial and academic resources, but one that also considers other important factors such as special talent, citizenship, curriculum, grading policies, and overall quality of individual high schools.

Together with increased high school graduation rates and expanded financial aid, these outreach and affirmative admissions practices comprise a pragmatic and achievable strategy for revitalizing our nation. Better educated students become the more skilled and prepared workforce needed to refresh the leadership within corporations, educational institutions, and government positions. They actively contribute to their communities. And perhaps most importantly, they carry with them the lesson that a collective strength is most surely rooted in opportunity that is at once individual and inclusive.


Donald A. Saleh is vice president for enrollment management at Syracuse University. He has more than 30 years of experience in higher education admissions, financial aid and recruitment.


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