Ideas to Make College “Fairer”

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

August 12, 2019

By Michael Dannenberg 

In wake of the on-going national college admissions scandal, every candidate for state or national office should be asked a simple question: “How do you plan to make college cheaper, fairer, and better?” Not just cheaper, but fairer and better because we’ve got serious equity and quality challenges in higher education.

A couple of weeks ago, we suggested four ways to make college cheaper. Today, we offer four more ways to make college fairer with a brief pro-con analysis of each.

Here we go.

Goal: Make College “Fairer” in Admissions, Enrollment, and Student Service. The admissions and financial aid systems are rigged to ensure selective colleges, including state flagships, are filled not with the most meritorious students but those from the highest income backgrounds. All too often, low-income and racial minority students effectively are shunted into under resourced, non-selective public four-year institutions and two-year community colleges — often due to inadequate high school preparation. Those qualified to attend selective, four-year colleges who under match into other institutions are 30 percentage points less likely to complete than equally qualified peers. And time and again, we see colleges with similarly qualified student bodies with similar characteristics generating wildly different rates of success with racial minority students. Bottom line: America’s education equity issues extend to higher education.

Moderate Proposals:

Idea #1A & 1B: Use federal aid to advance college admissions reform. (A) Provide up to $50 million in aid to institutions that make use of “supplemental, class-based affirmative action” in admissions. (B) Ban the legacy preference, binding early decision, and donor preferences at any college that does not evidence “a meaningful commitment to diversity” (i.e. enroll and graduate a significant number of low-income and racial minority students).

Pros: Supplemental class-based affirmative action (i.e. in addition to race-based affirmative action) builds on past suggestion of former Harvard President Derek Bok and current College Board work. Preference ban recommendation echoes past proposal by the Hispanic Education Coalition and others.

Cons: Attacking the underpinnings of elite higher education admissions risks alienating members of the donor class. Regardless, touching any aspect of the admissions issues triggers an intense debate over race-based affirmative action. Privately, some may oppose pro-socioeconomic mobility and diversity admission reform policies fearing a backlash against race-based affirmative action. Publicly, opponents will argue reform efforts are intrusive and reflective of an elitist view of inequity in higher education opportunity.

Idea #2: Institute a higher education public service fee charged to colleges with indefensibly poor working class and low-income Pell Grant student enrollment levels. After being given time to improve, the public service fee can take the form of an increase in the recently passed GOP endowment tax on super wealthy schools or creation of a new, public service fee for participation in the federal student loan program charged to colleges that operate as “engines of inequality.” Higher education public service fee generated revenue should disbursed to HBCUs, minority serving institutions, and other under resourced, high Pell-serving four-year schools.

Pros: Pits elite colleges and their defenders against HBCUs and other high Pell-serving institutions. Works off of current law concepts (i.e. the GOP’s 2017 endowment tax and later inserted McConnell exception for Kentucky’s Berea College) as well as pending legislation (i.e. the Coons-Rosen ASPIRE bill) endorsed by the NEA, education reformers, and higher education leaders, including the University of California’s Chancellor and Princeton University’s President.

Cons: Will be characterized as a quota capable of being gamed and an attack on academic freedom. Prompts debate on affirmative action that consistently polls poorly.

Bold Proposals:

Idea #3: Link high school reform and improvement policies to any free college or debt-free college federal-state partnership proposal. Attach dedicated funds for, and condition, free college or debt-free college on implementation of high school reforms, including upgrading high school curricula for all, default placement of all students on a college prep academic track, supplemental tutoring and summer support for those academically behind, a college and career counselor in every high school, and district accountability for college enrollment, placement, and completion.

 Pros: Fills a yawning gap in K-12 education debate without touching testing. Expands political coalition behind college affordability to K-12 advocates and interests. Good policy in that high school curricular rigor is the number one influence on college completion.

Cons: Expensive. Limited examples of successful high school reform and improvement. Pushing all students on a college prep track in high school triggers the “Is college really for everyone?” debate, which polls poorly.

Idea #4: Accountability for all colleges, all programs, and all student groups. As a condition of aid receipt by institutions of higher education, require college leaders to set ambitious goals on access, affordability, and completion for students overall and specifically those who are members of historically underserved and disadvantaged groups. Require that goals be set institution-wide and for targeted program areas of sufficient size within, such as STEM enrollment and student performance. Provide direct aid to institutions for recruitment, support, and completion programs with proven track records of success, such as: systematic consideration of a student’s environmental context in admissions assessments; on-campus supports, including academic counseling, tutoring, and emergency financial aid; and use of data analytics to restructure programs and redesign courses (e.g. flipped classrooms). Attach consequences for institutions that continually and despite repeated warnings enroll low percentages of Pell students on the access front or lag on completion either overall or in terms of closing gaps, such as: conditioned board of trustee reappointment; college president appointment and compensation; financial audit; and limitations on non-academic, new construction capital funding (e.g. residence life, athletic facilities, etc…).

Pros: There’s a strong civil rights coalition that backed the K-12 Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) that can be expected to back a higher ed accountability proposal. Examples abound of successful institutions on the equity front as well as lagging peers. Recommended proposal avoids the testing issue, which is not present in higher ed in nearly the same way it is in K-12.

Cons: Will be smeared as NCLB for higher ed. Similarly, will be criticized as first step on a slippery slope toward postsecondary teacher evaluation based on student test scores and decline in academic standards. Privately, elite institutions will claim proposal undermines commitment to scientific discovery and academic freedom. Not clear that non-financial consequences will be enough to motivate change. Opponents will claim financial consequences for institutions will be passed on to and harm students.

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