When it comes to graduating more students from college, especially more minority and low-income students, the news is both good and not so good.
In December, a report co-published by the Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads (the chief executives of the 52 public colleges and university systems in the United States) painted a bleak picture.
"Charting a Necessary Path" reported that of all the low-income and minority students who entered college as freshmen in 1999, only 45 percent of them had graduated six years later. That's 12 percentage points lower than the graduation rate of all other students. As for minority students at two-year community colleges, traditionally a stepping-stone to higher education, only 7 percent graduated within 10 years.
While a cynic might dismiss this one as the latest well-intentioned report that the sky is falling on public education, its authors remain bullish.
"This is not just research for research's sake," Education Trust President Kati Haycock told The Washington Post. "This is the baseline for a very aggressive action initiative among a number of institutions that have said, 'We're going to make this better,'" adding that if the promised improvements are made, "... it really changes the trajectory of education in this country."
The good news is that a recent study using broader and more realistic data provides a more accurate picture of how a representative group of public schools is dealing with the vital problem of turning entering freshmen into graduates.
Two years ago, 24 public colleges (with a total undergraduate enrollment of 3.1 million) made a pact to increase their completion rate and to bring the enrollment and graduation rates of racial minority and low-income students closer to campuswide averages. Going out on a limb, they pledged to halve the gap by the year 2015.
Under what they called Access to Success, or A2S, the 24 schools voluntarily committed to a specific policy of "setting clear goals to close the historic gaps in college access and success between students of different racial and economic backgrounds."
Bridging the achievement gap is not an impossible dream. Ed Trust, for one, has tracked a number of public institutions that have made strides. For example, it highlights Georgia State University, which in five years increased in "underrepresented minorities" grad rates by 18 percentage points. The resulting 51 percent rate actually exceeds its 46 percent non-URM rate.
A2S, which launched in 2007 with support from the Education Trust, not only pledged to halve the gap in eight years, it pledged to do so "both in terms of access to post-secondary education and in terms of successful completion." The members agreed to share knowledge and raw data, the latter being quite an impressive pool, given that their combined enrollment represents 40 percent of the undergraduates in public four-year colleges and universities and 20 percent of those in all two- and four-year colleges.
As blogger Scott Jaschik pointed out, "By including part-time students and those who transfer in and out of a system's member institutions, they nearly double the number of students covered by the existing federal graduation rate measure."
Given the depressing statistics cited in the report, what's the public to make of the initiative's muscular goal?
According to Jennifer Engle, Education Trust assistant director of higher education, "First and foremost, it's significant that the leaders of these 24 public university systems have stepped up and said, 'We've seen the national data on the achievement gap for low-income and minority students, and we think it's imperative that we do something about it in our own systems.'"
In some states, Engle noted, the members provide 100 percent of the public education in their state. "These leaders know they are an important economic engine and an important engine of social opportunity and mobility in their states as well. So they know that they have a responsibility to serve these growing populations."
As to the steps they will take, "Each of our systems are working, individually, their own plans and their own programs to help meet these goals, but because we are a collective, we are working together as well. There is a synergy you can get as a result of working together in cross system on these issues. So we have a couple of cross-system workers as well as outside experts."
One area of focus, Engle said, is that of financial aid, to see if institutions are putting an appropriate amount of money into aid for low-income students. "What we have found when we look across the board at national data is that our public institutions are spending at least as much of their institutional grant aid money on higher income students as they are on low-income. So we have a panel of experts looking into that area."
"Opportunity Adrift,"' a January Education Trust report, pulls no punches in describing this inequity: "... [I]n a departure from what common sense and common decency would suggest, these institutions are still spending almost the exact same amount of money overall on grant aid to students whose parents earn more than $80,000 per year as they are on students with an annual family income of less than $54,000. These institutional choices, combined with the diminished purchasing power of federal Pell Grants, make it even more difficult for needy students to afford tuition."
The study showed that public college students who receive Pell Grants, awards tailored for low-income recipients, graduate at the same rate — 32 percent — as all students. This holds true for Pell Grant recipients who transfer to four-year colleges; their 60 percent graduation rate is the same as that of all other students. A bill in that passed in the House calls for increasing the top amount students can receive and, for the first time, would link the program to inflation rates.
While A2S began before the election of Barrack Obama, it dovetails with the president's American Graduation Initiative, a $12 billion program to help community colleges over the next decade. "By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," Obama promised in announcing the White House initiative. "We used to have that. We're going to have it again."
Perhaps even more to the point, the Access to Success Initiative also started before the economic crash. Perversely, today's tough times may be a net positive. "When we asked our leaders about the economic decline, they replied that it made focusing on this goal even more important," said Engle.
"Given that the future college-going and future workforce populations are growing, if we don't address this problem now, we'll have an even bigger economic crisis in the future because we won't have the workforce that we will need."
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