“Access” in the college admission world has long been a term repeated so often it’s lost its meaning. The College Board has used it for years to characterize a test that helps colleges weed out applicants (although its original intent was the opposite); colleges and universities have used it to mean whatever they want it to mean: “access” to the college admission process, “access” to the “accept” pile, and “access” for minority and underserved students. It’s a feel-good word that can override good sense; for example, the “Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success” leads with it, despite the fact that its major supporting members are some of the least accessible institutions of higher education in the world.
This situation has led me to divide the idea of access to higher education into two parts: Micro- and macro-. The first, micro-access, refers to the efforts of individual colleges and universities to increase the number of students from minority and underserved backgrounds on their campuses. For very well-endowed institutions, this effort has been very successful. They can afford to support students financially and have extensive recruiting arms. Over the last 40 years, they have diversified their student bodies remarkably.
When we look at access to higher education across the entire spectrum of institutions, however, we find that many struggle to provide access to their campuses for capable but poor or underserved students. While community colleges and state-supported institutions are generally open to most comers (barring budget cuts), smaller liberal arts institutions without the financial resources of the high-status schools struggle to balance the desire for diversity and the need to stay open. Trying to address this issue as a whole is what I call macro-access.
The colleges and universities that can afford to be diverse and accessible without limitation educate a tiny number of students relative to the overall numbers enrolled in college. That’s micro-access. We should look toward macro-access. If, as Caroline Hoxby has said, there are something like 30,000 capable students who miss out on college because of poor information and support, we need to develop macro-access awareness to find and enroll them. They can’t all go to the same institutions and there are many out there would would be more than happy to take them if they had the financial resources.
I have also advocated that the nation’s wealthiest colleges and universities create a national endowment that can be used by poorer colleges to support needy students on their campuses. I’ve suggested that a small percentage of endowment earnings (maybe half of one precent) be allocated in this way. Small colleges, upon accepting capable students with extensive financial need could draw on this endowment to enable those students to attend.
When I suggested this idea to the chairman of the board of one wealthy institution, he rejected it out of hand. “Why would we want to support other colleges’ efforts?” would be an accurate paraphrase of his comment. But I contend this issue is of national importance, one that the most privileged and high-status institutions could lead in a genuine move toward macro-access. No matter what the privileged schools do, they can only do so much on their own campuses; by expanding their vision to include a national movement for access, they could help transform the landscape of access for all capable students who wish to attend college.
I believe this movement can also be achieved more easily than it might appear. A few months ago, Brown University, one of the “poorest” of the Ivy League schools, pledged $100 million over ten years, seemingly at the drop of a mortarboard, for support of racial and access issues on their campus. As boston.com reported, their goals
…include increasing financial support for low-income undergraduate students, as well as a dean dedicated to working with those students; doubling the number of faculty from historically underrepresented groups by 2024-2025; expanding campus research on race, ethnicity, and social justice; and creating an annual report and committee on diversity and inclusion to provide data and information on the plan’s progress.
All of these elements are admirable, but they affect only the Brown campus of 6,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students. It’s access, but it’s micro-access.
If Brown had taken, say 10% of that $100 million, or $10 million, and set up a national fund, and the other seven Ivy League schools had done the same (surely they could come up with even more, but let’s keep things even for now; proportionate contributions would be fairer) we would have a beginning macro-access fund of $80 million. Investing and then distributing earnings to needy institutions would not only enable those institutions to provide access to college for many underserved students but also help them, in some cases, stay open. I’m no financial expert and I’m sure $80 million is a low number, especially if you just want to use earnings, but it’s a start toward achieving macro-access.
At some point, the most privileged campuses need to participate in macro-access efforts because this is a national issue. “Princeton in the nation’s service” is their motto; a relatively small investment in a national university trust would be a significant and admirable expansion of that goal. Recent rumblings in Congress about taxing various elements of privileged institutions’ financial portfolios might even be quieted if they took on an effort of this kind, demonstrating a commitment to national needs beyond their own campuses.
It is in no one’s interest for a college or university to fail financially (except for reasons of malfeasance), and it’s a greater shame that thousands of capable students are not able to attend college due to lack of funds or information. It is in the national interest for American colleges and universities work together to ensure that “access” once again means what it should mean.