Creating Affordable Pathways

The University of Kentucky, as the state’s flagship institution, has a moral responsibility to provide access to students of limited means, write Eli Capilouto and Tim Tracy, and thus is radically shifting the ratio of merit to need-based aid to do so.

January 25, 2017
 
 
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One of the strengths -- and there are many -- of the American higher education system is its traditional commitment to access.

Higher education leaders at all levels have been united in their desire to create and maintain affordable pathways to attendance at postsecondary institutions. We all are aware of the well-documented potential for progress that higher education offers generations of students and families.

But without question, during the last 30 years, the affordability of a college degree has eroded noticeably and significantly. A number of factors have contributed to that trend, but it’s clear that, as low-tuition, low-aid models have evolved into high-tuition, high-aid models, more and more middle-class students have been denied the opportunity to pursue higher education. That is why we at the University for Kentucky have evaluated how we structure our scholarships and have decided to chart a dramatically different path -- one much more aggressive in facilitating the success of students and families of limited financial means. It is right for our students, and it is right for the Commonwealth.

We’ve seen that, over time, colleges and universities have begun to use institutional aid to “sculpt” their entering classes. We have deployed aid to meet institutional priorities -- to support worthy goals of academic achievement and diversity, and to achieve important strategic objectives such as higher graduation rates.

But at what cost?

The connection between socioeconomic status and academic ability is well established. On average, students from families with higher incomes score better on national tests (ACT and SAT), are academically prepared, and engage in college-preparatory tutorials, among other advantages. It is no wonder, then, that those students also are rewarded more generously with institutional aid that is targeted toward merit.

At the University of Kentucky, we understand the results of these socioeconomic advantages and merit-based aid strategies. Students at the top end of both academic preparation and income receive the bulk of our merit-based aid -- which means the students who have the most options for postsecondary attainment are also receiving the most resources.

The fact is, however, that promising students who come from lesser means have not had such additional advantages and, in too many cases, have suffered as a result. As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, we have a moral responsibility to change that situation.

To be sure, we have institutional aid dedicated to those with the most need, and we take advantage of the longstanding state and federal funds available. But, as has also been the case in the overall American economy since the Great Recession of 2008, we are observing the worrisome trend of a hollowing out of the middle. It is those students in the middle -- both in terms of socioeconomic background and academic preparation -- who are facing increasing obstacles to postsecondary attainment.

There is no question that these students can succeed. The question is can they afford the opportunity? At UK, our goal through our strategic plan is to place the student at the center of all of our decisions. Against that backdrop, we recently announced a new initiative that will radically change how we allocate our institutional aid.

Through UK LEADS (Leveraging Economic Affordability for Developing Success), we are intentionally moving away from the institutional merit-based-aid arms race and instead committing ourselves to serving our students and our state. We want unmet financial need to be off the table as a concern for students and families.

A review of internal data has indicated that students with $5,000 or more unmet need -- defined as the amount remaining after the expected family contribution and all other aid (institutional, state and federal aid) -- had a significantly higher risk of attrition than students with less than $5,000 unmet need. And attrition increased significantly with each additional $5,000 in unmet need.

UK LEADS will dramatically shift the ratio of merit to need-based financial aid over the next five years. Currently, 90 percent of our aid is targeted to merit. By 2021, we hope 65 percent will be directed to financial need.

We plan to continue offering merit-aid based on a set of selection criteria. But if we do not make a radical change, it will become more difficult for our middle-class students to attend and graduate from our institution.

As public institutions have entered the institutional-aid arms race, institutional goals have taken precedence over the needs of their states and students. At UK, we believe that if we focus instead on student success and what is best for our state, institutional success will follow. But the reverse may not be true.

In the wake of the recent presidential election, there is also a strong push nationally to reinvest in the middle class, to address economic dislocations wrought by globalization and technology. Access to higher education must be a vital component of that effort.

In changing the way we think about aid -- by focusing less on sculpting a class of students and being more concerned about who can be positively impacted by a renewed commitment to affordable access -- we in higher education can once again honor our legacy as the nation’s brightest hope for economic and social progress.

Bio

Eli Capilouto is the president and Tim Tracy is the provost of the University of Kentucky.

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