Share the Wealth, Part II

Crabby says colleges should think systemically…

Back in January 2014, the White House assembled a group of college and university officials as well as heads of community organizations, businesses and philanthropies, to promote greater access to college for first generation and low-income students. “The price of admission,” writes Richard D. Kahlenberg in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “was agreeing to make a tangible commitment to improve opportunities for disadvantaged students—a pledge to increase the proportion of students eligible for Pell Grants, for example, or to create a new mentoring program or a new high-school-outreach program.”

As a way to highlight the problems that able low-income students have gaining access to higher education, this seems like a good start, but as Kahlenberg writes, “… the effort was limited to the extent that the White House announced no new federal programs to support colleges in promoting educational opportunity for low-income students.” And the initiatives that were proposed, while well-meaning, were also very limited given the national context of the issue. (Increasing the number of students with Pell grants from 17 to 20 percent at a school with only 1,600 students is, well, nice, but less than a drop in the bucket.)

In December 2014, the White House held another summit, out of which came Increasing College Opportunity for Low Income Students: Promising Models and a Call to Action. (Downloadable PDF.) Attendance was by invitation only and only high-level officers (no substitutes) were invited; to be represented at the summit institutions had to submit a fairly lengthy description of their current efforts and plans for the future as well, including current and projected numbers of students served. (I know because I completed one.) So the deck was already stacked. Attendees could reinforce their own commitments and the White House could showcase them without making any major new commitments.

The report mentions many possible ways to “reduce inequalities in college advising” and increase “the pool of students preparing for college” and so on, but so much of what it suggested here, such as ensuring students stay in college once there, comes down to one thing: money. Even if able, needy students have the best college counseling and get tutors, if they can’t afford it, they can’t go. It’s as simple as that.

This is not to say that highlighting institutions’ efforts and nodding to the ideas of FAFSA completion, greater outreach to high schools and communities and so on aren’t good as far as they go. Most higher education institutions will probably tell you they’re doing the best they can to recruit, enroll, and support needy students. But all these efforts seem like well-meaning but disjointed efforts that, at best, recreate the wheel even though they might make it slightly bigger.

Missing from the summit and from the conversation about access in general is an understanding that colleges and universities are not isolates but parts of a system that educates and prepares students for participation in national and global life. Colleges presented their own efforts regarding access, but it appears little if anything was discussed regarding how they might work together to improve access for needy but able students. The paradigm of institutional competition seems to have predominated; the idea of banding together to make these things happen does not seem to have occurred to anyone there.

Perhaps they recall the anti-trust case brought against several institutions in the Northeast about 30 years ago. A consortium of “elite” colleges such as Amherst and MIT would meet after decisions were made to discuss students’ financial aid packages. The aim was to ensure the packages were comparable in order to enable students to make their decisions based on inclination, not cost, but this was eventually deemed to be “price-fixing” and so the practice was abandoned. (Leading, in part, to today’s constant bidding wars for excellent students.)

iuBut with states continuing to eviscerate their own institutions (see Wisconsin, Louisiana, and South Carolina for three) and the federal government unlikely to increase funding for Pell grants and similar efforts, colleges need to re-evaluate the competitive stances they’ve taken in the education marketplace. It’s time for them to work together to increase the access needy students have to college. One way to do that would be to help colleges without extensive endowments fund the needy students they could not otherwise afford to accept.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, one way to do this would be for wealthy colleges, those with billion-dollar endowments, to create a national fund upon which less well-endowed colleges could draw to support more needy students. Although wealthy colleges like Amherst, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and so on can easily fund as many students as they like, they have only so much room in each class to do so. Additionally, even if they were to fill entire classes with needy students, these institutions enroll only a tiny fraction of America’s students enrolled at four-year colleges. Their individual efforts to expand would hardly make a dent in the overall numbers.

But as we in the admission world know, there are many good colleges and universities all over the country with seats available each year. Unfortunately, while they may desire to enroll more needy students, even just in the interest of filling those seats, they simply can’t afford to do it. With a national college-run fund available, they could.

Basically, such a fund could supplement a college’s own financial aid to cover any gaps. An initial contribution of $100,000 from the top 50 best-endowed institutions would provide a $5 million start to an endowed fund. With schools’ endowments surging to double digits, even as high as 24 and 26 percent, there’s room for pooling resources and responding to a moral imperative that needs to be addressed sooner, not later.

Well-endowed colleges and universities should think beyond their own campuses when the issue of access arises. For too long, they have seen college access and admission generally as strictly competitive, without considering the systemic nature of higher education and its relationship to secondary education and society as a whole. A national fund, created and supported by colleges and universities themselves, would represent a radical shift in the way higher education orients itself to itself and those students and families they wish to serve. Despite the many variations of curriculum, orientation, and makeup of our colleges and universities, they have the ability to increase the ability of all institutions of higher education to address the nation’s need for educated citizens from all walks of life. They should start now.