President Obama’s college affordability plan has been eclipsed by the diplomatic showdown over Syria and now talk of a government shutdown, but it will be back this fall when, hopefully, its true benefit will get an airing.
The plan sounds like an appeal to the middle class, but it could prove more a boon to minorities and students from low-income families. And therein lies a long-term impact that could be bigger than either of the stories dominating the news.
Currently, selective colleges compete based on prestige and amenities such as free Wi-Fi and the best gym facilities. The president’s plan would instead aim to spur competition based on value as reflected in price and effectiveness. Most pay attention to the first part of that equation — tuition and fee price — but the value in the Obama plan lies in measuring and rewarding the second: effectiveness.
Among the indicators of effectiveness on which the president wants to rate colleges is the graduation rate of first-time, full-time students. Not a bad idea, given that the graduation rate averages less than 60% at four-year schools. And that’s just the average. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan implements the Obama plan, he should be sure to break out the graduation rate and other measures of effectiveness by race and income. Then we can hold colleges accountable for results, forcing them to pay attention not just to diversity in admissions but also the performance and graduation rates of poor and minority students, for whom average disparities are enormous.
Fewer than two in five African-American bachelor’s students and only half of Latinos will earn a degree in six years, compared with nearly two-thirds of whites.
Syracuse vs. Hofstra
Many in the higher education community argue these disparities are nobody’s fault but the students’, that it’s unfair to hold colleges accountable for the performance of these students. Somehow, it’s inevitable that certain groups of students will achieve at vastly lower rates than their whiter, richer peers.
But a close examination of the data reveals that many colleges are dispelling the myth that student characteristics effectively determine graduation rates. These schools graduate low-income students and students of color at significantly higher rates than other institutions serving similar demographic mixes. The president’s plan could highlight those colleges where education works for everyone, drive students toward them with added funds and encourage other schools to replicate effective practices.
Compare Syracuse and Hofstra universities — two midsize, non-profit private colleges in New York with a median SAT score of about 1,175. Underrepresented minorities make up 17% of Syracuse’s undergraduates and 18% of Hofstra’s. About 25% of Syracuse’s freshmen class are Pell Grant recipients, compared with 24% of Hofstra’s.
Despite these similarities, Syracuse has a six-year graduation rate that is 22 percentage pointshigher than Hofstra’s (80.2% vs. 57.9%). Fewer than half of Hofstra’s black students (49%) will graduate in the same time that nearly three-quarters of black students at Syracuse (74%) will complete a degree.
How do Hofstra’s administrators explain that? What are they doing about it? The Obama plan could prod them in the right direction and reward them for improvement.
Albany vs. Chicago State
The differences are nationwide. Consider two institutions at the other end of the selectivity spectrum: Albany State University in Georgia and Chicago State. At both institutions, nine out of 10 students are black and more than eight in 10 are low-income. Median SAT scores and high school GPAs are similar.
Think about that. There’s an 80% dropout rate at Chicago State, and the institution receives “competitively” awarded funds from the U.S. Department of Education.
In elementary and secondary education, the consensus view is that all children can learn to high standards and that students, teachers, schools, parents and peers all play critical roles in determining student success. In higher education, though, too many seem to think graduation is simply a matter of student ability and maybe financial aid, absolving colleges of responsibility to provide a good education to all the students they enroll. That’s wrong.
Demography is not destiny in K-12 or higher education. With a few important additions, for the plan is not complete, President Obama’s college affordability proposal could be the beginning of a civil rights in higher education plan. Let’s hope he and others follow through.
Courtesy of USA Today