Colleges Must Fix All of Society’s Ills – Or Else! (Part 2)

While pockets of students benefit from one-off programs, systemic change remains elusive

Last week I complained about unreasonable expectations being placed on colleges and universities. I rather quickly assembled a list of 10 such issues (there are actually a few more), and I indicated that in Part 2 of this topic, I would offer an opinion about what higher education can (and should) do – and what is simply beyond our capacity to correct.

I’d like to start with three related issues that represent numbers 1, 2 and 7 in my list from last week:

  • More low-income students need to be admitted at top private schools;
  • The pipeline to college must be widened; and
  • It’s all about college completion rates.

On January 16, President Obama convened more than 100 higher education officials (most of whom were either the presidents of elite colleges or heads of community colleges or public university systems) to seek commitments on four areas of concern:

  • Better matching of low-income students with colleges that fit their ability;
  • Increasing the number of low-income students who are high achieving;
  • Increasing the quality of advising for students from underserved populations; and
  • Improving the quality of remedial education.

The higher education officials made commitments that filled almost 90 pages. Northeastern University will offer 30 new full-need grants to low-income students from Boston. Brown University will guarantee students who are receiving need-based aid at least one funded internship or research opportunity. Columbia will fund a select cohort of current undergraduates to travel to areas with high proportions of low-income and first-generation college students. Drake University will implement a pilot STEM program serving low-income high school students. Franklin & Marshall College will expand its financial support for low-income students by 10 percent. Harvard will enhance its social media approaches to reach low-income high school students. Lewis & Clark College will explore the possibility of increasing transfer student enrollment by 50 percent. MIT will develop a new initiative focused on outreach to high achieving, low-income students.

Well, all this is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but is it, as President Obama states, “an extraordinary accomplishment?” I don’t think so. A few students will benefit – but these individual campus commitments do not in any way represent the systemic change that is required in order to provide access to higher education for young people from underrepresented communities.

And the idea that high-achieving, low-income students must attend elite institutions is not only unnecessary but also arithmetically impossible, as I discussed in an earlier blog post (“A Modern Fable,” July 8, 2013). A January 8 article in The New York Times by David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley presents an argument on behalf of a hypothetical student, graduating from a public high school with a 3.5 GPA. Dr. Kirp imagines this student attending one of three universities – Chicago State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago or Northwestern – and he strongly implies, without ever quite saying so, that her chances of graduating are directly linked to the graduation rates of those three schools (that range from 20 percent to 93 percent).

Well, the graduation rates are correct – but the suggestion that they will predict the likelihood of graduation for a particular student is nothing short of silly. Northwestern enrolls an academically far stronger group of students than Chicago State, and for that reason alone has a far higher graduation rate. Motivation to succeed? Compatibility with the campus culture? Familial and financial support? Surely these factors will play at least as significant a role in the student’s likelihood of graduating as will the overall graduation rates of these three universities.

A more realistic view of this whole business of widening the pipeline and improving graduation rates was provided (perhaps inadvertently) by two articles that ran recently in The Providence Journal. The state of Rhode Island has been engaged in an active debate over whether passing the NECAP, a standardized test widely used in New England, should be required for high school graduation in Rhode Island. As one might expect, there have been no shortage of opinions.

However, on January 10, the Rhode Island Department of Education announced that students who had been admitted to a two- or four-year selective college (meaning any college that is not open enrollment) could be awarded a high school diploma without passing the NECAP. The argument was, as one school superintendent put it, “If a child is accepted into college, how can we say you can’t graduate (from high school)?”

Fair point. But four days later, on January 14, the second article ran in The Providence Journal. It reported that “only 24 percent of students with low scores on the math NECAP were still in college at the beginning of the third semester.”

So colleges can widen the pipeline, but if the students they admit do not arrive academically prepared to do college-level work, the graduation rates will fall, not rise.

And here’s the bottom line: Colleges and universities cannot remediate society’s failure to provide young people with a quality K-12 experience. If those of us in leadership positions in colleges and universities raise more money, we can marginally improve our students’ graduation rates by spending that money to provide more counseling and tutorial assistance – but that’s like putting a bandage on a severed artery. A handful of students will benefit, but the majority of their age cohort will remain unable to realize the benefits of a college education.

Next week: Part 3