- Promote College Readiness: This is a rather simple phrase that, in actuality, entails a great deal of complexity. Getting kids off the blocks as early as preschool, and supporting their academic and social aspirations and development throughout elementary, middle and high school is essential. Focusing on only one particular period, may show short-term results, but will probably not produce the longer-term sustained results of getting a youth college ready. Developing basic academic skills in elementary school is critical, providing guidance in middle school on selecting a high school, taking a college preparatory course in high school, and getting in-depth and sustained guidance on the college selection and admissions process are all critical to college readiness. As well, an objective should be to make the transition from high school to college as seamless as possible, given that data shows that students having to deal with remediation are more likely to drop out. Various studies have also suggested that pre-college high school programs like Talent Search, GEAR Up, and Upward Bound provide students with the guidance and support that they need to increase their chances for success during the critical first year of college. Furthermore, students headed for college are advised to take more rigorous honors and AP courses in high school in order to acquire the academic content knowledge, skills, and habits that they will need to succeed in their postsecondary courses of study. As an aggregate, all of this entails starting kids early and supporting them throughout their pre-college days to acquire the array of assets necessary for college success.
- Affordability: Clearly, paying for college is a much greater burden to the families of students in the lowest quartile (i.e., 84% of average annual family income) than those in the highest quartile (i.e., 15% of average annual family income). On average, in 2012, unmet need for students in the lowest quartile was $8,221, which over four years, or more, would mean leaving school with a debt of at least $32,884. Plainly, we as a society have to do more to make college attendance financially viable for poor youth. Given that graduating from college is now equivalent to what graduating from high school once was with regard to educating and training citizens for contributing to our social and economic well-being, we should consider providing universal free education to youth able to benefit from such. This is not a new idea, as the City University of New York has had various permutations over the years of need-based assistance that has amounted to free tuition for those meeting specified income criteria. Similarly, the University of California provides free tuition for in-state residents who come from families making less than $80,000 a year. Some wealthier institutions such as Harvard and Stanford also provide free tuition and room and board to students coming from families having annual incomes less than $65,000. Today’s movement for supporting universal tuition-free community college is a good start, but we also should enhance the size of Pell Grants, and other sources of funding to make college attendance financially feasible for all low-income students who are academically ready for college.
- Support and Counseling: Just as students aspiring to college need support and guidance during the years leading up to elementary school, middle school, and high school, they need effective student support services once they get to college. Summer bridge programs have been identified as effective in helping students’ transition from their high school years to their first year of college. Such programs can help ease students into taking college level courses, provide writing workshops, teach achievement skills, and provide information and assistance about financial aid. Another strategy to keep low-income youth on track is to provide them with what is labeled proactive or intrusive advising. This actually entails a form of coaching in which staff members check-in with students on a weekly basis to help them deal with problems they may be encountering, before problems turn into failures that become deterrents to their success. This may go beyond academic help and include any aspect of college life that a student finds challenging. The bottom line here is that institutions need to be sensitive to the unique needs of their students, and with the high percentage of low-income students who start college and subsequently drop-out, there needs to be more personalized direct support for them from the time they start until they graduate.
- Support Full-time Attendance: Research has shown that part-time attendance in college is a risk factor for dropping-out. As one might imagine, part-timers typically must balance such things as family and job responsibilities with being able to focus on their academic work. As might be expected, the latter often suffers. While it is easy to propose that low-income students study full-time, it is more difficult to figure out how to make this happen, given their need to generate income for their living and school expenses. Clearly, there are few options here other than to provide adequate aid to cover these costs. From a public policy perspective, federal and state funds could be used to reward institutions that admit and graduate a higher percentage of low-income students, which, in turn, would mean providing more on-going support to them for making such a goal a priority. Wealthier institutions should also re-energize their efforts to recruit and support students from low-income families. Despite alleged efforts to bring costs down, a low-income student facing an average post graduate debt today of $32,884 provides little incentive for them to pursue a college education. If higher education really wishes to decrease inequality and enhance social mobility, they need to strike a better balance between their ever expanding costs and their missions to serve all segments of our society.
1 Bowles, S., Gintis, H., Groves, M., (2005), Unequal Chances., Princeton University Press, p. 7.
2 Greenstone, M., Looney, A., Patashnik, J., and Yu, M., (2013), Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education., Brookings Institution, http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/06/13-facts-higher-education
3 The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, Pew Research Center; http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/
4 Bottom Quartile = less than $34,160, second quartile = $34,160-$63,600, third quartile = $63,600-$108,650, top quartile = $108,650 and above.
5 Pell Grants are provided by the federal government to low income students.
6 Cahalan, Margaret, (2015), Sixteen strategies for widening equity of participation in higher education in the United States: Reflections from International Comparisons, in Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States , The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_45_Year_Trend_Report.pdf., pps 43 – 54.
7 Royster, P., Jacob, G, and Craig, H. (2015), Timing is everything: Getting students back on track to college readiness in high school. The High School Journal, Volume 98, Number 3, Spring 2015, pp. 208-225