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The Pell Institute and Penn AHEAD Blog - Improving Equity in Higher Education: The Search for Solutions

Attacking College Race and Class Bias with Hope

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The pernicious gaps in college success for low-income students and students of color (young and adult) have plagued the U.S. higher education system for decades. After some progress in closing gaps in the 1960-70s, recent analyses by the New York Times show the top 100 U.S. colleges have made no progress in reducing underrepresentation for African American and Hispanic students since 1980 – exactly the period when the economic value of a college degree skyrocketed. Year after year the Indicators of Equity in Higher Education report has shown devastating gaps based on race and class. Students in the highest family income quartile are four times as likely to earn at least a bachelor’s degree within eight years of graduating high school as students in the lowest family income quartile. The Education Trust’s recent analysis shows that, at the current rate of progress, race/class gaps will exist into the next century.

Two conclusions could be drawn from the decades of evidence on this issue developed by multiple organizations: first, the color of a person’s skin or the wealth of the family from which they are born determines if they have the right stuff for college, or, second, that structural racism and class bias are currently built into the higher education system and the various state and federal policies that govern it. If you opt for the first explanation you can stop reading now.

The second explanation requires an honest reckoning for higher education leaders, faculty, and state and federal policymakers. Our inability to create a fair system has devastating consequences for individuals, families, the economy, and our democracy.

Let’s first discuss why finally addressing this stubborn issue is more urgent than ever, and then start the conversation about how we succeed in giving all students a fair chance at college success. The good news is that some colleges are succeeding in closing gaps. The challenge is to scale up and effect systemic change.

Why is embracing fairness more urgent now than ever before?

Beyond the moral imperative historically embedded in the mission of higher education, incontrovertible data has documented the growing social and economic value of a quality college credential in a changing economy (e.g., see powerful recent research by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce). Two-thirds of all new and replacement jobs going forward will require a college credential. Almost all of the good jobs created since the Great Recession (millions of them) have gone to college graduates (see Figure 1). Given the rising knowledge/skill demands of the new economy, it is not out of bounds to say that people without a college credential can only expand the ranks of the working poor. And, this will occur while hundreds of thousands of jobs stand open for long periods because employers cannot find the people with the education needed to fill them.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce,
America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots, 2016

The devastating impact of colleges leaving talent behind is not limited to the potential students seeking a decent life and employers in need of a strong workforce. Colleges themselves are threatened by our inability to equitably graduate all students. College enrollments are declining across the country. The state disinvestment in higher education is making affordable college a thing of the past. Yet, it is also true that many colleges are losing as much or more revenue from declining enrollments and college dropouts as from declining state subsidies. The financial threat to many sectors of public and private colleges in the U.S. could be substantially mitigated if we kept more of the students we enroll. Colleges and policy makers should honestly confront the brutal facts of race and class bias in our admissions and campus policies and practices for moral, economic, and survival reasons.

How do we do design a fair system?

There is good news. Many campuses have shown the way to dramatically reduce or eliminate gaps (e.g., see, here; and here. It is not “rocket science.” It is a matter of sustained leadership commitment and will, as well as openness to change college culture, policies, and practices.

Many higher education colleagues would start by focusing on enrolling better prepared students and improving K-12 schools. Certainly, creating strong partnerships with feeder high schools (especially for more geographically defined colleges) is a smart strategy. However, starting there often lets colleges off the hook for the work they need to do. A just released analysis shows that colleges drop out 500,000 students each year who finished in the top half of their high school class. Nearly half of these top-performing students are low income. That is five million highly qualified students leaving with no credential in a decade. If they all achieved a bachelor’s degree, they would provide a $400 billion boost to the economy.

Much also needs to change in federal and state policy to remove race and class bias from the higher education system (see here). Federal and state policymakers must do their part. At the same time, however, colleges cannot rely on policymakers to solve these problems.

Colleges must do more to eliminate gaps for prepared, underprepared, and underserved students. Here are a few strategies to set us on the path to fairness and economic/institutional renewal.

  1. Provide sustained leadership commitment to infusing fairness into every area of the college from vice presidents, to faculty and staff, to grounds keepers.
  2. Create audacious long- and interim-term gap-closing goals with transparent metrics that honestly measure improvement (or failure). Insist that strategic and funding decisions connect to those goals.
  3. Improve the use of student data to drive change. Disaggregate everything. Use predictive analytics to identify barriers.
  4. Insist on a laser-like focus on proven next practices: (see here)
  5. Implement what works, not what feels good (e.g.,

Some colleges are already taking these important steps as part of a comprehensive redesign. No one strategy is a silver bullet. But, again, it is not rocket science. The real challenge is to scale redesign of our policies and practices so that fair practice in higher education is systemic.

This is a classic win, win, win. Students, young and older, are given the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of the family generations that follow. The country meets its talent needs and billions in stimulus are added to the economy. A more educated population demands better political discourse, votes, volunteers more, and strengthens democracy. Higher education itself can regain public respect as a sector that cares more about our students than our business. Finally, those of us who work in colleges can joyfully re-embrace our mission to provide opportunity and solve a big part of our revenue problems at the same time.

Despite current politics, the United States has historically demonstrated a strong commitment to pragmatism and hopeful problem solving. We can and must bring that history to bear to make U.S. higher education fairer for all students. We do not have time to waste.

Dr. James L. Applegate

Dr. Applegate has spent his career in higher education and philanthropy developing policies to dramatically increase college success, especially for underserved groups. He is a Visiting Professor in the Center for Education Policy at Illinois State University. He served as Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education leading a $2 billion system championing efforts to increase college attainment and close opportunity gaps. Jim was Senior Vice President and head of grant making for the Lumina Foundation-the largest higher education foundation in the U.S. There he led development of new approaches to increase degree production, fairness, and productivity in higher education. He advocated for improving education policy at the federal, state, and institutional levels. From 2000-08, Jim was chief academic officer for Kentucky. During his tenure Kentucky led the nation in higher education attainment increases. He was a professor and department chair at the University of Kentucky and an American Council on Education Fellow. He serves as a consultant for numerous higher education organizations. He was a University Fellow and received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois.