Crabby wonders what they’re talking about in Washington today….
Today (Dec. 4, 2014) a group of college, university, and organization leaders is meeting in Washington DC to discuss how to improve access to higher education for non-privileged students. Earlier in the year, a similar meeting was held in Boston where these institutions were challenged to develop ways to recruit, enroll, and support more low-income and first generation-college students. Some initial ideas, to put it mildly, seemed a bit underwhelming. Each institution seemed to focus mostly on what it could do, not on what they could do as a whole.
There’s only so much space and so much money to go around at any individual college or university to support first generation-college and low-income students. While having each college pledge to do more for those students on its own, a one-by-one approach, however well-meaning, fails to address the larger systemic issues facing colleges. Most schools cannot simply expand their enrollment to accommodate more students or provide more financial aid. To accept more needy students means they must both find more financial aid dollars and enroll fewer students who can pay. The result is unsustainable for all but the wealthiest institutions. This issue requires institutions of higher education to work together for meaningful support of all the capable students currently unable to afford college.
Wealthy colleges can brag about their ability to provide “no loan” financial aid to students, among other things, but that leaves other worthy institutions struggling to be equally accessible, since they lack the resources that would make it fully possible. Acting individually, they end up creating a patchwork of modest approaches to enrolling non-privileged students that just makes the whole process more complex and not really any more accommodating. Without a unified approach to college access for non-privileged students across the nation and across institutions, institutions will at best have limited impact and no real long-term effect.
We tend to see colleges and universities as isolated institutions competing for students. In fact, however, they are part of a large, if inchoate, system responsible for ensuring students’ and our country’s futures. By looking past the competitive imperative and seeing the system as a whole, wealthy colleges could create an immense groundswell of enrollment among non-privileged students at good, but poorly endowed colleges who have the desire, if not the wherewithal, to bring in a wide variety of students.
Many “top tier” colleges, what I call the “one percent” schools, have vast endowments that exceed the GDPs of some small countries, with ever-growing wealth coming from billion dollar fund drives, annual alumni campaigns, and so on. Drawing on these resources could provide an immediate and systemic answer to the issue of college access.
I propose that our wealthiest colleges and universities contribute .5% (or some other reasonable amount) of their endowment income annually to a National Fund for College Access. (Call it NFCA or the College Escrow Fund if you like.) Colleges with limited financial resources but plenty of spaces and willingness (of which there are many) could draw on this fund to help recruit, enroll, and support non-privileged students at their institutions. Ultimately, this fund could grow into an endowed fund distributing its earnings to these colleges and universities.
This action would not only help provide access to higher education, it would also be a unifying force addressing a systemic problem, rather than another piecemeal effort in a crazy quilt of ideas. “One percent” colleges could demonstrate true leadership in higher education by sacrificing a tiny share of their wealth to bolster the health of the entire network of institutions of higher education, and in the process re-invigorate higher education as a whole. Less well-endowed colleges could expand their access programs, decrease the amount of loan dollars students have to bear, and provide more support for those students during their time in college.
The devil is always in the details, of course, but an effort that involves all our institutions of higher education at once rather than asking them to stitch something together in the dark makes sense to me.