Divided We Learn

OPINION: Closing the stubborn college graduation gap between rich and poor

Top higher learning institutuions come together to increase socioeconomic diversity

Today, a college degree is more critical than ever. Those with a college degree not only earn more than those without, they are more likely to be employed.

Beyond the individual benefit, our nation is stronger when talent from all parts of society has the opportunity to flourish, and postsecondary education is still the main source of that opportunity.

Unfortunately, America continues to struggle to provide postsecondary education to young people from lower-income backgrounds. Even the most academically qualified lower-income students are far less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their higher-income peers.

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To address this national challenge, all segments of the higher education community must do their part, including America’s top colleges and universities. Talented, lower-income students who enroll at those institutions thrive. Yet, research by Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University’s Chris Avery confirms that, in each high school group, there are at least 12,500 lower-income young people with outstanding academic credentials who do not enroll at one of America’s most competitive colleges.

Earlier this month, we joined our colleagues in announcing the American Talent Initiative, which brings together a diverse set of public and private institutions united in the common goal of expanding access and opportunity for talented, lower-income students at hundreds of colleges and universities with the highest graduation rates.

The 30 current member institutions and — we hope — hundreds of future members will enhance their individual efforts to attract, enroll, and graduate low- and moderate-income students, learn from each other about how best to support those students, and share their experiences with the broader higher education community to maximize impact.

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The American Talent Initiative has set a goal of consistently enrolling at least 50,000 additional low- and moderate-income students at the 270 institutions with graduation rates above 70 percent, by 2025. Achieving this goal would increase the total enrollment of lower-income students at these schools each year by 12 percent, from about 430,000 to about 480,000.

We know this can be done, because there are ATI members that have done it. For example, Since 2007, Davidson College has sharply increased the number of lower-income graduates by combining the equity commitment of the Davidson Trust (Davidson practices need blind admission and meets demonstrated financial need) with aggressive recruitment through partnerships with talent identification programs like Questbridge, Posse, Golden Door Scholars, College Advising Corps, and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America.

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Despite signfiicant decreases in state funding over the last decade, the University of California – Berkeley has managed to increase its budget for financial aid and ensure that at least a third of its students are eligible to receive Pell grants

Franklin & Marshall College tripled the share of its students who receive Pell grants between 2008 and 2014; at the same time its retention and graduation rates have improved and its student body has grown more diverse in other respects, as well.

While each American Talent Initiative college and university member has its own plans – and has achieved its own successes – the initiative is about connecting those efforts into something bigger.

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Members will investigate lessons learned about what works and what challenges remain, bolstered by the analytic support and management of two not-for-profit organizations, the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R.  Aspen and Ithaka S+R will also publish regular reports on the initiative members’ progress toward the national enrollment goal and research papers on the most promising strategies.

The members of the American Talent Initiative aim to learn not just form one another, but from leading community colleges and regional public universities across the country that have done so much to expand student access and success.

After all, every segment of higher education has a vital role to play in developing talent from every part of our country and every income level. Initiavie members are determined to amplify one another’s work and connect it with that of others pursuing this common, national imperative of helping more students achieve the American Dream.

Martin Kurzweil is director of the Educational Transformation Program at Ithaka S+R.

 Carol Quillen is president of Davidson College.

 Josh Wyner is vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

 All three are members of the steering committee of the American Talent Initiative.

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