American Talent Initiative highlights progress—but says it’s slowing

A new report indicates that The American Talent Initiative (ATI) is on track to meet its goal of enrolling and graduating 50,000 more low- and middle-income students from the 320 colleges that consistently achieve graduation rates at or above 70 percent by the 2025-26 academic year. But, ATI cautions that “continued progress… is not guaranteed,” saying that ATI members’ aggregate gains in lower-income enrollment actually leveled off between 2017-18 and 2018-19.

ATI’s membership has now grown to include 128 top schools, up from 30 in 2016 (Georgetown University was a founding member); 200 more are eligible to participate based on their six-year graduation rates. Participating and eligible institutions collectively enrolled an additional 20,696 low- and middle-income students in the initiative’s first two years, putting ATI more than 40 percent of the way toward its goal.

Gains at many institutions offset by backslides at others

However, recent enrollment data collected from 120 ATI members prompted initiative leaders to sound an alarm. While most ATI members increased low- and middle-income student enrollment between 2017-18 and 2018-19, those gains were offset by declines at 52 other institutions, for a net gain of just eight lower-income students that year. Noting that ATI does not yet have comparable data for the 200-some other ATI-eligible institutions, the report says it remains unclear “whether this leveling off reflects a trend across all institutions eligible for ATI.”

The findings, ATI says, show that “the first three years of the initiative provide some evidence that the initiative is having its intended effect. They also show that we need to keep our foot on the gas.”

4 features common to ATI’s most successful institutions

To that end, ATI’s new report highlights institutional strategies known to support increased socioeconomic diversity. The most successful institutions, the initiative says, have four features in common:

  1. They prioritize and invest in a comprehensive strategy. Leaders and board members at the most successful institutions “ensure that there is focused attention and a concrete plan for promoting socioeconomic diversity across the whole lifecycle of the student experience: outreach to prospective students, admissions and yield, financial aid, student belonging, the academic experience, and progression and graduation.”

  2. They cultivate new pipelines of incoming students. Successful ATI members are looking beyond traditional student populations, focusing for instance on community college transfer students and student veterans.

  3. They prioritize need-based aid. Institutions are innovating financially and investing ever-more resources in financial aid.

  4. They ensure that every student can thrive on campus. The most successful institutions take care to meet students’ basic needs, provide equitable access to educational opportunities, and foster a sense of belonging. (Read about new research on attitudes of belonging among first-generation undergraduate students at Georgetown University.)

The report notes that ATI members are collaborating to achieve this goal, as seen at the 2019 Summer Institute on Equity in the Academic Experience, which was hosted by Georgetown University in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin and ATI.


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At the Summer Institute on Equity in the Academic Experience, teams workshopped initiatives to increase successful outcomes for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students. Read Story

Challenges that could impede progress

ATI also calls attention to several hurdles that threaten growth in lower-income student enrollment. Adapting to enrollment declines, for instance, “is important and difficult” for colleges and universities, but ATI points out that some institutions are pioneering business models that “not only sustain themselves but also serve a socioeconomically diverse student body.”

Declining state investment in higher education also is a concern, especially given 80 percent of the decline in lower-income student enrollment seen among ATI members in the most recent year occurred at public institutions.

Some ATI members also have reported a decrease in yield, or the percentage of lower-income students accepting admission offers. However, ATI notes that “there are large numbers of talented lower-income students graduating from high school and community college, or separating from the military, for whom none of the ATI colleges are currently competing. By expanding the pipeline, they do not have to engage in this kind of zero-sum game.”

“There are talented, high-achieving low-income students out there,” Emily Schwartz, one of the ATI report authors, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “It’s making sure that institutions are going about socioeconomic diversity in a comprehensive way and piecing together everything under a comprehensive strategy.”

Related: Adanna Johnson on Georgetown’s whole-institution approach to equity and inclusion >

Speaking with The Hechinger Report, Josh Wyner, a member of the ATI steering committee, reinforced the importance of making socioeconomic diversity an institutional priority. “The vast majority of college leaders care about this issue,” he said. “The question is how high on their priority list is it.”

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