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The United States Capitol.
The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Kathleen Kordek for The Hechinger Report

Federal lawmakers are debating the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act against the backdrop of sobering forecasts about the nation’s future workforce demands.

Labor economists project that by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require a college degree or credential.

To prepare the workforce of tomorrow, lawmakers must ensure that all students can access and succeed in higher education. To do that, they must advance the use of high-quality data to develop equity-driven policy solutions.

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The need for equitable access to a college education and improved student outcomes is urgent. The odds of experiencing college and workforce success are stacked against low-income students and students of color in New York and throughout the nation.

Today, low-income students still attend college at lower rates than high-income students did 40 years ago. In New York state, less than half of black and Hispanic students who begin a four-year degree program graduate within six years.

“In turn, lawmakers lack comprehensive information about which institutions are serving students of color and low-income students well — and which ones are not.” 

In the Bronx, where Lehman College is located, blacks and Hispanics account for almost 84 percent of the borough’s population, and the connection between educational attainment and income is clear: Bronx county is the poorest in the state, and it is next to last in educational attainment, with only 28 percent of residents holding an associate degree or higher.

For communities like the Bronx, equitable access to college is not just a lofty ideal, it’s an economic necessity.

Right now, there are about 460,000 adults in the Bronx with a high school diploma or its equivalent but not a bachelor’s degree.

If they all found a path to attaining a bachelor’s degree, the estimated benefits would be staggering: they would generate an additional $6 billion in annual income and $2.8 billion in tax revenues.

Related: Even if they want to go to college, millions of adults live in higher education “deserts”

Thousands would be lifted out of poverty. With a college degree in hand, they could profoundly shift the fortunes of their families and communities for generations to come.

This is what an equity-driven higher education policy could create, not just in the Bronx but throughout the country.

All meaningful efforts to promote educational equity begin with evidence about what works and what doesn’t. But, in fairness, even the most well-intentioned lawmakers lack the tools to fully assess the equity landscape.

Our current federal data infrastructure is duplicative and inefficient. It excludes outcomes for many of today’s students — those enrolling part-time or transferring from one institution to another — and it fails to present many measures of success by race or socioeconomic status.

In turn, lawmakers lack comprehensive information about which institutions are serving students of color and low-income students well — and which ones are not. Similarly, information on workforce outcomes excludes students who don’t receive federal aid — a full 30 percent of all students — which creates gaping holes in earnings data.

Research from the Institute for Higher Education Policy demonstrates just how college leaders around the country can use data to help more students succeed.

At Lehman, data on low pass rates for general chemistry classes led to the introduction of “flipped classrooms,” an innovation that allows students to learn content online and focus on complex problem-solving in the classroom. Passing rates increased substantially for both General Chemistry 1 and 2, and the average GPA rose one full grade.

There already is a way to make meaningful data available to lawmakers — the College Transparency Act, a bipartisan, bicameral measure that calls for a secure, privacy-protected student-level data network that would provide critical information to guide policy decisions. By leading with data to inform policies, lawmakers can demonstrate a real commitment to equity in the next Higher Education Act authorization.

Smart data use can be a driving factor in understanding the kinds of supports that all students need to be successful — and to become the qualified, productive workforce of tomorrow.

José Luis Cruz is president of Herbert H. Lehman College of the City of New York.

Michelle Asha Cooper is president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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  1. What am I missing? The title refers to “equity-driven policy” however, the article only really talks about the need for data-driven policy without really explaining what you mean by “equity-driven.” Please help me understand what I am missing.

    Thank you,


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