With so much talk right now on the economy and balancing budgets at any cost, it was refreshing to hear President Obama use part of his State of the Union speech to address the skyrocketing cost of college. "Let me put colleges and universities on notice," the president said during the speech. "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down." These words were backed up by the President's announcement at the University of Michigan of a new Race to the Top-type grant competition for post-secondary schools within state systems. The New York Times reported that in order to win the federal grants, states would have to rein in costs and promote on-time graduation of students.
While the spotlight will be put on the president's well-founded concerns about college costs, it is another aspect of the initiative that deserves attention: the goal of increasing college graduation rates. It is true that colleges can help improve graduation rates by addressing the issue of the financial support they provide. But an even bigger impact can be made if colleges take on a greater responsibility with regards to providing on-campus support to ensure that the most vulnerable students who are entering college are also graduating. The Pell Institute has found that only 12% of low-income college students will earn a bachelor's degree compared to almost 60% of those students from higher-income families. This is unacceptable. Just as K-12 schools work diligently to prepare graduates for college, colleges need to do a better job of preparing to assist incoming students.
Some innovative inner-city public schools across the country have allocated resources for supporting their students once they graduate from high school. This type of investment pays off: at Urban Prep Academies (a network of charter public all-boys schools), for example, our graduates persist in college at about twice the national average for African-American males. The problem is these efforts are unsustainable in the long term; public elementary and secondary schools just don't have the money to operate their schools as well as meaningfully support their alumni long-term. Colleges themselves must take primary responsibility for ensuring that students admitted to their schools actually graduate. Providing opportunities for low-income and underrepresented students to gain admission to college, keeping tuition costs affordable and, as Complete College America's president Stan Jones recently advocated in the Washington Post, promoting faster, more efficient paths to graduation are good solutions. But, they are not good enough. Colleges must also provide support to students by way of mentors, tutors, academic resources, and counseling that will give students a road map to navigate a college experience often filled with potholes.
Great examples of this type of work already exist nationwide. Georgetown University's Community Scholars Program provides targeted support including a summer program, tutoring and peer counseling to students who are often the first members of their families to attend college. Kentucky's 55,000 Degrees Program partners city business leaders with local universities and the county school district to dramatically increase the number of college degrees being earned. Morehouse College, meanwhile, has students and parents participate in an intensive orientation program that connects the families to the school in meaningful ways (including "rites of passage" activities). If we want individuals from diverse backgrounds to have a chance at participating in a job market that increasingly requires at least a bachelor's degree, we need more colleges to follow these examples, and to participate in events like the College Completion Symposium hosted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan where over thirty college representatives gathered to share their work around college completion.
Without free and easily accessible support programs, students can find themselves at a loss as to how to cope with financial and scholastic setbacks. When one of Urban Prep's graduates returned for his sophomore year at a prominent public university, he was told by the school that his financial aid package would not be extended. Embarrassed that he was unable to afford tuition on his own and unable to traverse his school's financial aid labyrinth, the young man withdrew from classes and returned to Chicago. Once Urban Prep's alumni counselors became aware of this student's situation, we met with him and helped advocate on his behalf so that he could secure funding under a different aid package. Today, the young man is back in college and on track to earn his bachelor's degree. While this particular story has a happy ending, we know that there are many other less supported students for whom freshman year issues like these will signal the end of undergraduate aspirations. In fact, data show that low income, first generation students are four times more likely to not make it beyond freshman year than their more affluent peers.
It's always about money; but never just about money. True, the cost to colleges of increasing financial, academic, and social supports for students will be high. But if colleges aren't willing to provide services to ensure that their students graduate, the cost to students, and to society, will be even higher.