A college wake-up call

Committing to economically disadvantaged students

Over the last decade, 8 million new jobs have been created in the U.S., almost every one high-paying and requiring a college education. (1)

Today a young person with a bachelor’s degree earns 50 percent more, on average, than a peer with just a high school diploma. (2)

So why did Michael, the principal of a rural high school in northeastern New York, recently tell me that he’s having an increasingly difficult time selling the prospect of college to his students and their families?

One reason is cost. Controlling for inflation, tuition costs have doubled over the last generation. (3) Families from the lowest economic group pay more than half their earnings, on average, to send a child to college. (4)

Although college costs have soared, aid to needy families has stagnated. Need-based financial aid has steadily decreased while merit aid has increased. Merit aid — generally awarded for test scores, resumes, grades and other measures that drive up U.S. News & World Report rankings at colleges — all correlate with family income. Unlike their lower-income peers, wealthier kids have supports, like college counselors, test prep courses and after-school activities. It’s no surprise, then, that merit aid goes disproportionately to kids of the rich.

All of this helps explain why students from the top economic quartile are eight times more likely to get a four-year degree than their peers in the bottom quartile. Even more troubling, one-third of our high-achieving, low-income students never even apply to college.

Another deterrent that low-income children face is that they have very little information and support to help them figure out the complexity of how to apply and pay for college. In fact, 20 percent of America’s high schools have no counselors. (5)

One hundred highly selective colleges enroll more students whose families are in the top 1 percent economically than those in the bottom 60 percent. (6) This contributes to the perception that America’s colleges have become bastions of inequality.

Amid this backdrop, many colleges are doing a remarkable job attracting and enrolling low-income youth. Harvard, for example, has committed to support talented low- and middle-income students so that many of these families pay nothing to attend. West Point, of course, is free to all students it enrolls, but beyond that, West Point reaches out to high-need communities by providing robotic workshops and no-cost STEM summer programs for middle school students.

In the Adirondacks of northern New York, Clinton Community College and SUNY Plattsburgh open their campus to students across the state, helping them understand how to move into and through the college maze.

We have created a postsecondary system where, too often, those who need the most help get the least and those who need the least get the most. Here are steps that can be taken to ensure that college once again is a path to the American Dream.

Nonprofits like the one I lead can fill the void in high-need communities by providing information to students on how to go to college and mentors who can help these children become college ready. Over the last two decades, we have helped 100,000 low-income students access colleges.

Businesses can also play an important role by providing mentors and advice on the thread between jobs and postsecondary study. Eight years ago, EY created a program called College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence), where its employee volunteers have helped nearly 2,000 high school students from urban communities become college ready.

Most colleges want to do good, but too many are caught up in the ratings frenzy that rewards high faculty salaries, fancy buildings and merit aid. Some colleges, however, are working to buck this trend. Lehigh University has created an office and program targeting underserved youth.

“Our mission is to ensure that we can identify, recruit, enroll, support and graduate a significantly higher number of first-generation and low-income students,” said Donald Outing, Lehigh’s vice president for equity and community.

For many reasons, one of which is immensely practical — the fastest-growing cohort of young people in the United States is from low-income households — it behooves all of us to follow the example of Lehigh and EY. We need to regain the American Dream where the best indicators of college success are once again ability and hard work rather than family income.

Rick Dalton is the president and CEO of College For Every Student, based in Essex.

Footnotes:

1. Joseph Fuller, professor, Harvard Business School

2. The Hamilton Project, “Major Decisions: What Graduates Earn Over their Lifetimes,” Brad Hershbein and Melissa Kearney, Sept. 29, 2014, http://www.hamiltonproject.org/papers/major_decisions_what_graduates_earn_over_their_lifetimes

3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Price of Tuition,” 2010, https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2010/college/data.htm#cpi

4. Brookings Institute, “Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education, Michael Greenstone, Adam Looney, Jeremy Patashnik, Muxin Yu, June 26, 2013, https://www.brookings.edu/research/thirteen-economic-facts-about-social-mobility-and-the-role-of-education

5. Politico, “How U.S. News Rankings Promote Economic Inequality on Campus,” Benjamin Wermund, Sept. 10, 2017

6. Hechinger Report, “The Rich-Poor Divide on America’s College Campuses is Getting Wider, Fast,” Jon Marcus and Holly K. Hacker, Dec. 17, 2015

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