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The pursuit of prestige has clouded the thinking of many leaders at four-year postsecondary institutions.
When faced with tightening state budgets, far too many look to climb up the ratings ladder and shore up funding, by increasing tuition and fees, cutting vital support services that serve underprepared students, and chasing after the “best and the brightest” and those who are able to pay “full freight.”
As a result, many students ending up on campuses that don’t have supports in place to get them through to graduation. Even worse, some students don’t apply at all, scared off by high price tags. These practices are reshaping where poor kids attend college and widening inequities in college access and success that have existed for far too long.
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The government tries to alleviate some of the sticker shock through Pell Grants, need-based aid provided to students from low-income families in hopes of bridging the financial gap to college. Almost nine million students receive Pell Grants and use them to enroll in institutions all over the country.
The problem, though, is institutions never have to demonstrate their ability to educate and support these students through to graduation. Leaders pocket this taxpayer money on behalf of their institutions and carry on in their efforts to maximize prestige with no follow-up that they’ve done their job.
Fortunately, the Obama administration is beginning to prod. This month, it released its College Scorecard, which includes a host of information about individual colleges in hopes of making the decision-making process easier for students and families. And with it, they released long-sought after data, including the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients. Already, media outlets have used the data to create lists and other interactives that allow readers to sort through colleges with the best outcomes for low-income students.
Related: Obama administration takes big step in simplifying financial-aid application process
This transparency is long overdue, but it’s not sufficient. Publicly posting graduation rates for Pell recipients won’t lead to colleges and universities doing more to enroll more low-income students, a change President Obama called for two years ago.
This transparency must be coupled with accountability to create the equitable higher education system that our nation’s youth deserve.
There are more than 100 colleges that enroll a freshman class where less than one in seven students are Pell-eligible students. This is unreasonable, given that about four in 10 full-time undergraduates in this country are Pell recipients.
These institutions — mostly highly selective and wealthy — are what we call “engines of inequality” for exacerbating inequalities for our nation’s youth.
We need to do more!
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If institutions can’t enroll a bare minimum percentage of low-income students — and get them through to graduation — they shouldn’t have access to institution-based federal financial aid or to the enormous tax benefits that many of our richest institutions receive.
It’s the premise of our Tough Love report, which outlines ways the federal government can leverage its investments in higher education for better outcomes for students. And it’s a call we reaffirm in our newest analysis, The Pell Partnership, which finds a deep and rooted gap in the graduation rates between Pell students and their non-Pell peers, despite a small average gap of 5.7 percentage points at the average institution.
Nationally, about half of Pell students graduate in six years; for non-Pell students, that rate is 65 percent. And alarmingly, it’s a gap that would persist even if every institution that enrolled Pell students closed their own gaps in graduation rates. Why? Because, the national gap isn’t just about gaps in institutional performance. It is just as much a function of where students enroll. Compared to non-Pell recipients, Pell students are predominantly clustered at poor-performing colleges and universities where too few complete. And too few Pell students have the opportunity to attend selective institutions that graduate most of their kids.
Related: An unprecedented look at Pell Grant graduation rates from 1,149 schools
Federal action should start with the most egregious offenders: rich institutions that don’t serve their fair share of low-income students and institutions that produce far more debt than degrees.
But federal action alone won’t be enough. To turn this around we need the cooperation of the vast majority of institutions — the ones that could do a lot better if they really focused. First, institutions must make equity a higher priority. Gaps in completion for students from different backgrounds shouldn’t be acceptable.
Second, low completion rates shouldn’t be explained away no matter where students enroll. Our experience and the use of our College Results Online Web tool tells us that similar colleges that serve the same types of students can have very different outcomes for students.
Finally, leaders at selective schools should stop elevating the narrow self-interest of their institutions above the interests of the most vulnerable students and the public good — these are not mutually exclusive priorities. These leaders should “lead,” reaffirming their institutions’ commitment to enroll their fair share of students from low-income backgrounds.
Together these efforts may not address all of our challenges, but they will certainly put us on the path to greater equity in access and success.
Andrew Nichols is director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust and the author of The Pell Partnership: Ensuring a Shared Responsibility for Low-Income Student Success.
José Luis Santos is the vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust.
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