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.
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.
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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When the public laments the closure or threatened closure of small colleges like Burlington College, formerly run by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ wife, or Sweet Briar College in central Virginia, they mourn the loss of a piece of history, a source of pride. But rarely do they ask how those colleges actually served or are serving their students. Perhaps it’s better for students that some low-performing colleges have closed, because at least now future students won’t be as likely to be burdened with a lifetime of debt from those institutions and no degree with which to obtain a good-paying job that enables them to repay that debt.
Several small private nonprofit colleges that have been threatened with closure in recent years, for example, enrolled sizable numbers of low-income students, charged them exceptionally high prices as a function of their income, yet provided them with little positive outcome – namely, the college degree they were there to receive. Take a look at the data below for six randomly selected colleges that have closed or face closure.
Closing a school is a last resort and a decision that undoubtedly affects the lives of faculty, staff, and many others in the community — often for the worse. But at their core, schools are not job programs for adults. They’re institutions that are supposed to educate students with at least some minimal level of effectiveness. And sometimes, no matter how fraught the situation, closure may be best for vulnerable students.
We’ve seen this phenomenon play out in K-12 education. Over fierce criticism in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel made the extremely unpopular decision to close 50 under-enrolled and low-performing schools. He was vilified. But research has found that nearly all of the Chicago students displaced by Mayor Emmanuel decision moved on to schools with higher performance ratings. Research is not yet available on those students’ subsequent academic outcomes, but preliminary data from the Chicago Board of Education suggests less expulsions and suspensions and higher test scores.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg also made the divisive decision to close 29 high schools for low performance. Research there also found that displaced students ended up enrolling in higher-performing high schools. And the benefit was even greater for future students, as current middle-schoolers attended higher-performing schools and saw a 15-point increase in graduation rates compared to students in similarly low-performing schools that did not close.
We’re not sure if politically, Mayor Emmanuel or Mayor Bloomberg still think the decision to close underperforming schools was worth the opposition. But we are sure from a policy standpoint that students, particularly poor and minority students, benefitted. And in higher education, where a combination of toughened oversight from the Obama administration and state attorney generals on for-profit colleges led to the closures of some of the worst for-profit colleges – and potentially even greater, the accrediting agency that oversaw those colleges – we’re certain that students, too, have and will continue to benefit.
For college leaders beyond the for-profit sector to suspend their ethics or rationalize away predatory behavior in the name of low-income student access, but whose ultimate underlying driving motivation is to ensure the financial security of their struggling institution, is both wrong and eventually, unsustainable. Just yesterday, four small private colleges were placed on probation for financial struggles. Moody’s rating service already has estimated that the number of four-year nonprofit colleges going out of business will triple and the merger rate will double by 2017.
But if college leaders focus on actually having their students return every year and actually graduate from their institutions within a reasonable period of time, then not only would they have a much more prudent financial strategy, but they would also be providing the education, service, and ladder of socioeconomic opportunity that they profess to produce.
From a policy standpoint, the K-12 school closure experience and lessons learned from the Obama crackdown on poor-performing for-profits schools should send a clear and urgent message to all colleges: Focus on your students. Focus on your value. And focus on the outcomes you produce for your students.
In the words of one private college provost: “If you’re seeing half the students disappear after the first year, you’ve got to ask yourself what business you’re in. Because it isn’t education.”