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Divergent Visions of Success in Higher Ed

Colleges need common goals for students from all economic backgrounds

A student leaves the polling place after voting on the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Ga., in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
A student leaves the polling place after voting on the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Ga., in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

How do you define success for colleges? For students, it’s fairly simple: to graduate on time with the skills and talents needed for a job of their choosing, and without unmanageable debt.

Yet for colleges, there seems to be as many definitions of success as there are colleges.

This has led to a crisis where a record number of students never finish college and are left with an unmanageable level of debt that they cannot pay off.

That’s what led us to look at this issue from a student’s perspective. What we found was a system of colleges and universities with no common goal of what defines success.

We have one group of schools consistently “ranked” as some of the best in the country. These schools are highly selective and graduate almost all of their students within four years. With abundant resources, they can tailor education programs to the aspirations of admitted students, most of whom come from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds.

We also have a group of schools that rarely make it onto any college rankings list. With diminished resources, overwhelming percentages of students who attend these schools do not graduate in six years, let alone four. These colleges aren’t able to provide the same opportunities for their students and they serve disproportionate numbers of working-class and middle-income students.

In the months we spent looking into this issue, we found upwards of 100 elite colleges across the country with high graduation rates that serve strikingly small numbers of low-income and first-generation college students — far fewer than are qualified to attend. On the flip side, we also found a near equal number of four-year colleges — public and private schools — with dropout rates in the 80 percent range and higher.

One of the great tragedies in our higher education system is that a significant number of students are racking up student debt but aren’t graduating, leaving them without the degree needed to get a good job to pay off their loans.

We think this is unacceptable. That’s why we teamed up to tackle both ends of the college access and college completion problem so that colleges start meeting students’ definition of success.

We were surprised by how little has been done to address these dual problems. Yet the solutions we found are simple and well within affected schools’ capabilities.

Under our plan, selective, wealthy colleges that do a poor job of recruiting and admitting low-income students would have four years to boost low-income student enrollment or be required to pay a fee to participate in any federal student assistance program. High-access, low-performing colleges would have the option to get up to $2 million a year for four years to improve student outcomes. But if they fail to improve, they’d be cut off.

For schools already making strides to improve completion rates, including minority-serving institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, additional competitive funding will be available

We know some colleges on both ends of the spectrum don’t believe change is possible. Some selective, wealthy colleges say there aren’t enough low-income students who meet the high academic standards these schools require for admission. But that simply isn’t true.

According to data from the College Board, every year up to 30,000 students who score in the top 10 percent of the SAT either enroll at less selective institutions than their scores would predict or don’t attend college at all.

On the other hand, some colleges with low graduation rates will point to a real lack of resources that keep them from better supporting their students, which we acknowledge is a large contributing factor.

But there also are low-cost, effective ways for schools to graduate more students without lowering academic standards. Just look at Georgia State, which has increased its graduation rate by over 20 percent over the past decade and entirely closed the achievement gap between Pell grant and non-Pell grant students.

Today, college access and completion rates reflect two different visions of success. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

By expanding access at resource-rich schools and improving graduation rates at under-resourced colleges, our ASPIRE Act can help make sure all students have a range of high-quality college options. We believe in a higher education system that reflects the fundamental American ideal of equal opportunity for all.

On Wednesday, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced a major higher education reform bill they’ve been working on for more than a year.

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