Why we’d better look beyond cost to create pathways for all students

\We are bombarded by data that illustrates the growing income inequality in society
Mark Burstein, former president of Lawrence University
Mark Burstein, former president of Lawrence University

Decades of leadership experience have clarified for me the ways that higher education must change if we want to realize a fundamental purpose of attending college.

Many aspects of higher education drew me to a career in university administration. Certainly, I believed that learning possessed transformative power, that my own educational experiences provided essential skills for productive citizenship and success.

But the central draw was the belief that a college degree, almost unlike any other accomplishment, could change a person’s trajectory, could ensure the wellbeing and economic success for students from families with limited means.

Now, after nearly 30 years of service, the importance of this goal has increased. We are bombarded by data that illustrates the growing income inequality in society and its connection to educational attainment.

For example, in 2018, the median income for 25- to 34-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree was 57% higher than for those who completed education at the high school level. This differential has remained consistent for many years. Lower unemployment rates for bachelor’s degree recipients have compounded this differential for more than a century.

Looking beyond cost

Beyond financial wellbeing, Anne Case and Angus Deaton—in their book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism—correlate completion of a bachelor’s degree with improved mortality rates, a sense of wellbeing, and other indicators of a fruitful life. They argue that the pandemic has only accelerated these trends.

But even as a bachelor’s degree has become a central path to personal wellbeing, our educational community has failed to create learning environments in which students from families of limited means enroll and complete degrees.

Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, among others, argue that higher education fails to provide high-achieving, low-income students a successful path to a bachelor’s degree. In Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity, Charles Clotfelter demonstrates how college enhances socioeconomic stratification through the replication of economic elites. This failure persists despite continued efforts to improve low-income students’ access and graduation rates.

It is misleading to cite the rising cost of college education as the main culprit. Hoxby’s research shows that this is not the case, especially at highly selective institutions such as my past employers, Princeton and Columbia universities, where the net price for low-income students is less than almost any other option.

Even at other elite institutions such as Lawrence University, which I was privileged to lead for eight years, the average net price is lower than it was five years ago thanks to increased financial aid supported by philanthropy and continued efforts to constrain operating costs.

To be clear, holding down the net price of college must continue to increase access. But to create a pathway to a degree for all who are prepared, we need to look beyond cost.

Dreams have blocked by the pandemic

An important ecosystem of organizations has developed to support low-income students’ quest for a college degree. These nonprofits provide essential counseling, admissions matching, and skills support to thousands of high school students. Yet these organizations also complicate the admissions process.

A low-income student from Chicago could receive conflicting information from QuestBridge, the Posse Foundation, and the Chicago Scholars Program, among many others. Frequently, students apply to multiple programs to determine their best path forward.

Confusion also exists at the college level where admissions offices struggle to determine the most productive partnerships within this ecosystem. These organizations could devise more efficient outreach to ensure all students are included but not triple-teamed. They could also devise a procedure that would create stronger and more effective partnerships with colleges.

In addition, the federal government’s allocation of critical student financial support now rewards institutions with larger endowments that serve fewer low-income students. If more federal funds were allocated instead to the institutions with a greater percentage of needy students, fewer institutional resources and higher graduation rates, more students would have access to a transformative education.

Finally, we live in an age of ranking fascination; evaluation criteria drive college policy. Currently, the focus of many organizations that publish rankings is on criteria like endowment per student.

Rankings could weight more heavily aspects of the college experience that directly connect to access and persistence, such as the difference between predicted and actual graduation rate and the net cost per student.

The higher education community has the will to meet its mission of providing a transformative education for all, including students from families of limited means. I have seen this commitment in action.

Now, it is time to increase our efforts, especially for those students whose college dreams have been blocked by the pandemic. Leaders need to make more holistic changes if we are to meet this critical goal.

Mark Burstein recently completed an eight-year tenure as president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

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