BY CHIDI AGU
Accessing the American College Dream
There is a persistent and aspirational narrative in the United States that no matter what circumstances one was born into, college can be the great equalizer of opportunity. Imbued within this narrative are two main beliefs. The first is that the United States is a meritocracy where the cream will always rise to the top. The second is that education alone can serve as the panacea for social inequality.
This narrative imagines that the higher education system will reward smart, hard-working students regardless of any history of poverty, racism, sexism, redlining, or other forms of prejudice and exclusion. This assumption ignores the fact that unfettered access to colleges and universities is a recent development following centuries of discrimination in K–12 education and especially within postsecondary institutions., In response, college-access programs have sought to address this fundamental inequality by increasing the diversity of students entering higher education.
However, confidence in college as a gateway to the American Dream is diminishing. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows that most Americans do not believe higher education is headed in the right direction. Their reasons for dissatisfaction vary along political party lines, but there is consensus around concerns of costs and job prospects. Still, by 2020, it is estimated that 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education, compared to 28 percent in 1973. Furthermore, the income share of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 37 percent in 1991 to 50 percent in 2012. Having a college degree will only matter more and more in the coming years.
Congress is supposed to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965 every five years but has failed to do so since 2008. This presents an opportunity to make sure the next reauthorization makes the spirit of the law a reality. Policy makers must implement both punitive and rewarding structures that get institutions to act to close the equity gap. Only by dealing directly and deeply with the various sources of disillusionment around the American College Dream can we ever hope to make it as good as its promise.
Discrimination and Pernicious Narratives
The myth of the American College Dream is an inviting narrative that does not demand institutional culpability nor collective reparations. It suggests there were no authors of inequality and that there is no need to take a careful look through the private- and public-policy failures that led us here.
Education nonprofits and college-access organizations often solicit and sell the stories of “broken” students set straight by their interventions. The wayward child whose surroundings and family were not good enough to put him or her on the right path if not for the vision of these organizations. These stories do nothing to repair these “broken” communities and, in many ways, tacitly support the social system that produced such entrenched inequity. Instead, there is a tragic irony that by recruiting more marginalized students who are perceived as the “cream,” we become more complacent in efforts that address the entire “crop.”
This does not discount the excellent work that cohort programs like Posse and QuestBridge do for bright young students who might otherwise slip through the cracks by connecting them to top-ranked college partners who provide academic guidance, social support, and generous financial aid packages to those admitted., Nor does it discount organizations like the College Advising Corps, which attempts to engage the entire student body with its near-peer model that hires recent graduates as advisers who look and speak more like the students they serve. However, we rely upon the same pernicious narratives to solicit donor dollars and media attention.
The cracks in the college-access system cannot be repaired without fundamentally transforming the discussions we have. Otherwise, we will continue to misunderstand the purpose, implementation, and beneficiaries of affirmative action. We will use stereotypes of Asian students to justify the status quo while failing to treat them as more than a monolith. We will continue to legislate in the court of public opinion campus culture wars about who belongs and whose voice gets to be heard or silenced. We will reproduce an inequitable societal orientation only with a somewhat more diverse face.
Understanding where we must go requires intimate knowledge of where we are. Any comprehensive solution to our college-access problems must detail and confront systemic issues directly. Only then can we implement the structural change necessary to remedy the flawed foundation.
Current Barriers and Challenges
Nearly half of funding for public K–12 schools is local, typically coming from property taxes. State funding—which is often the most equitable—makes up 47 percent, and federal funds are less than 10 percent. Even when cost of living is adjusted for, some states fund K–12 education at half the rate of others with large district-level disparities., Thus, factors that students have no control over, like neighborhood property values and state budget cuts (which have significantly worsened since the Great Recession), result in increased class sizes, fewer support services, and delayed implementation of reforms that would improve college admission and persistence. As schools are forced to rely more on inherently inequitable local taxes, school funding continues to be one of the greatest sources of inequality in college access in the United States.
Budget cuts invariably affect state colleges and universities and have led to higher prices, fewer academic opportunities, and increased admission of out-of-state and international students who pay higher tuitions. Predictably, marginalized students, who attend in-state schools at higher rates, are most likely to suffer the consequences of public college funding remaining $9 billion below 2008 levels (adjusted for inflation).,
The short- and long-term costs of attendance are crucial determinants in who attends and graduates from college. Tuition is increasing faster than income gains or inflation, and student-debt burden has doubled since 2009 to nearly $1.5 trillion.,, Student loans, which most low-income students rely upon, cannot be forgiven upon bankruptcy. So when public universities’ fees are equivalent to 77 percent of low-income families’ annual earnings, it is unsurprising that many first-generation students are discouraged by these prices.
Additionally, application and enrollment expenses are underestimated barriers for first-generation and poorer students. They must navigate complicated fee-waiver processes to avoid the costs of taking required standardized tests, applying to multiple colleges, and submitting enrollment and housing deposits—which can be thousands of dollars. This contributes to students “undermatching”—not applying to or attending universities they are academically ready for—and ending up at schools with worse outcomes.
Sadly, federal plans to help college graduates are in disrepair. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is meant to incentivize graduates to pursue lower-paying public interest work, yet it has rejected 99 percent of forgiveness requests. Also, the Office for Student and Young Borrowers within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which focused on protecting citizens from predatory student loans, was limited in 2018. Grassroot organizations like Rolling Jubilee buy and cancel defaulted student loan debt for pennies on the dollar using the same financial instruments typically used to collect these debts, but this is far from a comprehensive solution.
The spiraling costs to attend college and reduced loan assistance are national embarrassments. We are senselessly limiting the potential of our economy and discouraging the students who could benefit most from a university education from ever applying.
How We Evaluate Students
Not all students deserving and capable of excellent education will demonstrate their ability through stellar GPAs and perfect SAT/ACT scores. It is all too easy to use these numbers as shorthand indicators of future academic and professional success. Yet, it is impossible to pretend that these metrics perfectly assess students’ capabilities when standardized test scores are nearly perfectly correlated with family income and imbalanced school funding allows richer communities to recruit higher-quality teachers. Wealthier students can also afford advantages that significantly increase test scores, like re-taking the SAT or hiring private college tutors.
Particularly, the increasingly competitive market for highly selective schools has encouraged students and school administrators to sometimes employ unethical practices. There is a lurid market for the sob story (e.g., “from homeless to Harvard”), where the imagery of damage and deficiency often plays well with college administrators. This leads many marginalized students to believe they must emphasize their trauma over their talents to be admitted and negatively affects their likelihood to apply to college and persist.
It is a racket that wealthier students and schools also take part in, ironically fearing that their privileged lives will be a hurdle to elite college admission. This leads to fabricated extracurricular activities, grade inflation, and exaggerated claims of hardships.,
Inequitable Access and Outcomes
Admirably, there has been an increased focus on first-generation student admission and support programs in recent years. Many of the nation’s most selective institutions have made important strides, but it is still common to find more students from the top 1 percent income bracket at these schools than from the bottom 60 percent. Most first-generation students will attend state universities close to home for financial, academic, and social reasons. Their outcomes lag behind their counterparts whose parents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. One leading explanation is that the culture shock first-generation students experience on campus and the emphasis US universities place on individuality and independence fail to provide these students with the support structure they deserve to succeed.
Furthermore, reporting from ProPublica shows there is not a single state where Black or Hispanic students are as likely as their White peers to be enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, considered gifted, or measured in several other indicators that directly lead to college attendance.
Additional racial disparities are seen in discipline. Compared to their White counterparts, Black students are four times more likely to be suspended—11 times more likely in Washington, DC—and Hispanic students are less likely to be suspended in only four states. Suspended or expelled students then fall behind academically, have higher dropout rates, and are more likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, school districts that serve the most Black and Hispanic students also have the lowest-paid and most inexperienced teachers.
These gaps developed over generations, and meaningfully and sustainably repairing them will require a deep commitment to equity. This can only be accomplished by candidly addressing root causes.
Directions for the Future
Making our colleges and universities the engines powering a new American Dream requires laying down early investments throughout our K–12 education system. This includes changes to how we fund schools, make college affordable, evaluate students, and assist students in exploring their postsecondary options.
Funding schools equitably within states is a baseline requirement. If necessary, new state and federal legislation should be enacted to ensure equitable funding. Equity mandates that public funding close the gap that property taxes create. Of course, spending more money does not guarantee proportionally better outcomes, and close attention must be paid to where those dollars are allocated and what effects they have on student achievement.
This increased funding should be used to employ more diverse and culturally competent education-sector workers. Students of color select lower-paying majors for reasons that range from underinvestment in the years leading up to admission to discouragement upon arrival at a college campus. Research regularly demonstrates that students perform better when learning from educators who share their identities—particularly boys, African Americans, and low-income students—with no detrimental effects on more privileged populations. Yet, just 18 percent are teachers of color, and only 2 percent are Black men. Promoting and hiring more ethnic minorities in decision-making roles in K–12 can ensure that more students of color are appropriately placed on college preparatory tracks.
Additionally, states absolutely must appropriate more funding for colleges to reduce costs of attendance, which is critical to expanding college access.
In an ideal world, college would be tuition free. Meanwhile, universities must expand creative payment methods so that costs do not continue to crowd out lower-income students. Income-share agreements, a method where students pay back a fixed percentage of their post-graduation salary in exchange for low or no up-front costs, have been piloted at schools like Purdue University. These programs incentivize equitable student outcomes as universities depend on their students earning enough to recoup their investment over a set period (typically ten years).
Abolishing for-profit colleges is another piece of the puzzle. These schools disproportionately enroll low-income and ethnic-minority students while producing the worst student outcomes. Obama-era regulations were a step in the right direction, but too many students still fall victim to the for-profit below-average income/above-average debt trap. There is no reason to continue spending billions in federal funds on these schools when we could invest that money elsewhere.
Relatedly, forcing significantly underperforming institutions to cover students’ debt would be a powerful motivator. Schools that saddle their students with debt and a low-quality education need to re-pay any federal loans they took advantage of and compensate enrollees. As precedent, recently, Career Education, a for-profit college syndicate, forgave $556 million in student debt amid mounting legal pressure. Priority should be given to those earning below-average income with child dependents and disabilities.
How We Evaluate Students
In theory, the college application process evaluates students fairly and comprehensively, but it regularly fails to do so in practice. States and colleges can streamline the process by working with high schools to aggregate and electronically submit all data necessary to apply and enroll with student permission. This includes transcripts, test scores, and any other bureaucratic burden that prevents capable students from ultimately enrolling. The ACT and College Board—provider of the SAT—reduced certain costs for low-income students in 2018, but they still serve as private gatekeepers to college access.
Universities also must decrease emphasis on SAT/ACT scores. These results should only be used as pieces in the intricate puzzle that makes up an aspiring applicant to an institution. The growing number of schools, like the University of Chicago, that are making standardized tests optional and evaluating more non-academic factors (e.g., self-discipline or grit) related to student ability are moving in the right direction., Early findings suggest that these policies increase diversity in applicants and do not negatively affect graduation rates.
Inequitable Access and Outcomes
Correcting decades of inequality requires deeply integrative approaches, and schools need to use relevant data to implement innovative interventions throughout a student’s career. Longitudinal data tracking and sharing across stakeholders can align efforts, prevent redundancies, and increase the efficacy of targeted engagement by college advisers, guidance counselors, and teachers. Over 40 states have some sort of system, but there is much room for improvement. Equitable college access necessitates having well-trained, culturally competent professionals assisting students. Research has shown that both information and assistance are necessary to boost important determinants like financial aid and retention.
We must encourage students to fully explore their postsecondary options, and de-stigmatizing and investing in community colleges is the best place to start. These institutions need to be a college-access priority as they serve nearly half of US undergraduates and an increasingly large share of low-income, ethnic-minority, and marginalized students., Attending a two-year college before transferring saves money and improves chances of admission at many universities. Additionally, community college transfers have been demonstrated to perform at similar or higher levels than high school and four-year university transfer students.
Lastly, policy makers should create more “second-chance pathways” to empower those who elected not to attend college immediately after high school or dropped out. These pathways could build upon the template of a nonprofit like Year Up, which provides urban 18–24 year olds without college experience with intensive career education, social support, and job placement over a 12-month span at no cost to the student. Students who completed Year Up saw a 50 percent increase in their incomes, and many maintained career and social support after their program.
The American College Dream can only become a reality when students truly feel they belong and are deserving of higher education. Identity, income, and geography should not prevent anyone from pursuing the type of education they are willing to work to attain.
In the past, the United States subsidized the growth of the middle class and provided social welfare along discriminatory lines., It is this knowledge of where we have erred that allows us to conscientiously work towards re-appropriating the resources necessary to make college access a truly equitable endeavor for all.
However, when we talk about equity and access, we cannot be content with simply getting students to the door of these institutions and hoping inequality will resolve itself. We must also ensure not just that they walk out the other side with a degree and a meaningful experience but also that they step into a society that has undertaken a comprehensive approach to equitable success.
This should not be misunderstood as a call for governmental or private-industry paternalism. Rather, it is an alignment of interests that removes impediments to student success and self-determination. The path forward is not easy, but the direction is clear. There only remains the question of whether we will have the political and moral courage to do what is right.
Let us build the comprehensive system we and our children deserve. Let us make the foundation of the future a fair one.
Chidi Agu is a MPP student and John F. Kennedy Fellowship recipient at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His most recent professional experience included working with the USC College Advising Corps. Chidi’s work involved helping low-income and underrepresented students plan for, apply to, and afford college. He served as a data and policy fellow for the College Advising Corps, where he explored issues surrounding public policy, education research, program evaluation, and higher education administration.
Edited by: Steven Olender
Photo by: College of DuPage, Flikr
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