How to ‘make college a better bet for more people’? Four experts weigh in.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently brought together four social-mobility experts—a campus leader, a public official, a researcher, and a college counselor—and asked them “how to make college a better bet for more people.” The discussion covered both evergreen topics and unexpected opportunities—insights captured in a transcript and video highlights.

What does it take to build a more equitable college pipeline?

Asked about stratification in U.S. higher education, the experts pointed to the nation’s K-12 systems as an important target in efforts to improve equity in the college pipeline. Noting that “there’s a $23 billion difference between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite school districts,” Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, said that it’s impossible to “talk about where higher education is going without talking about the systemic, structural inequalities in K-12 that begin with funding.”

Building a college-going culture is similarly crucial, according to José Luis Cruz, executive vice chancellor and university provost at the City University of New York (CUNY). CUNY, he said, runs programs in partnership with the city that start in early early childhood. The system also has programs that encourage middle schoolers to visit college campuses and help 10th-grade students assess whether they’re on track for enrollment in credit-bearing college courses.

The Michigan College Access Network, meanwhile, oversees a college-advising program that trains recent graduates to work with students in school districts with higher student-to-counselor ratios, said Daniel J. Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities. The advisors help students complete college and financial aid applications, lowering hurdles to enrollment.

Other efforts seek alignment with students’ motivations for going to college. It’s not just about making more money, the experts said. For some, it’s about making a difference. For others, it’s “that you’re more secure than the previous generation was,” said Jack, adding that those students “become the safety net for [their] family in a number of different ways.”

What’s missing when higher ed focuses on ‘free college’?

The group also addressed the limitations of “free college.” “Tuition isn’t enough,” said Sara Urquidez, executive director of the Dallas-based Academic Success Program. College costs involve far more—for instance, textbooks and the expense of meeting basic needs—and “as long as we continue to think that tuition is the barrier to affordability, the problem is not going to get better.”

Free college calculations tend to “forget that the price of actually being a person is what really keeps a lot of people out,” said Jack. He urges college leaders to focus on food and housing insecurity—both episodic and acute—and to establish solutions that allow “students to focus on their work, not on two of the most harrowing things: where they’re going to eat or sleep.” Jack also called for removing taxes on scholarships, “which blindsides some students.”

Related: Access is just the beginning: In Georgetown visit, author Anthony Jack shares challenges that less-privileged students face at elite universities >

Many free college programs also keep students close to home, and counterintuitively, that proximity may pose a barrier to success, Urquidez said. Conventional wisdom says that keeping students in their communities allows them to live at home, work, and save money. 

“But suddenly they’re working 40 hours a week and helping subsidize the household,” Urquidez said. “It becomes, ‘Well, I’ll go back next semester, and I’ll go back next semester.’ And it never actually happens.” She says she’s observed that students who attend college at least 45 minutes away from home have higher four-year graduation rates, which tend to increase with additional distance.

Beyond student success best practices, where should higher ed focus?

Throughout the discussion, the experts pointed to successful programs underway at various U.S. institutions. Cruz, for instance, touted CUNY’s ASAP initiative, which has helped double community college students’ on-time graduation rates through advising, transportation vouchers, and assistance getting textbooks. Hurley, meanwhile, pointed to Georgia State University as an example of a less-resourced institution that “invested huge sums of money and got a huge return” on student success. 

But when schools far and wide are implementing best practices, what accounts for those institutions’ outsized success? “It’s more about the better practitioners: relentless, very intentional, data-driven,” said Cruz. “They’re getting different results.”

Higher education also needs “to expand what our best practices are, because there’s a lot that we take for granted about what students actually know,” said Jack. New student orientation is a key improvement opportunity, he said, given that many of colleges’ most vulnerable students don’t necessarily know how to take advantage of their campuses’ full range of resources. 

In addition, faculty and staff need training on engaging effectively with students to set them up for success, he said. Cruz echoed that sentiment, saying that “as we think about the levers available to us, we’re focusing not only on wraparound services, but on our faculty and what they can do to get our students to learn and succeed.”

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