We Could Be Providing Better Education Solutions to Low-Income Americans, But Aren't

When my grandfather came to this country, he barely spoke English, but he was able to get a good enough education that allowed him to compete in the economy at the time and land a good enough job to support and build his family. That was the intent and promise of the American education system from the start, but that system has lost its way.

For many Americans, especially those of color and from low-income families, the education that you get today is simply not good enough to compete in the current globalized economy. The result is a K-12 system that has produced 6.7 million young people, who neither finish nor can find work. Of those that do finish high school, many don't continue on for additional certification or earn incomes often 30-40 percent of the average median.

But as the results of The New York Times College Access Index found, some colleges (but, unfortunately too few) have adapted to today's challenges and are able to successfully educate and graduate low income students. The New York Times piece further convinced me that we need to focus urgently on three things:

1. Holding College and University Leaders Accountable for These Results

The Index ranks colleges based on three factors: colleges that graduate 75 percent or more of their students, their share of students receiving federal financial aid typically going to families making less than $70,000, and net cost after financial aid. This year, six of the top seven colleges were from the University of California system -- with UC Irvine enrolling 40 percent of its freshman class from low income families. However, the top 20 performers were varied -- large and small, urban and rural, private and public, well-endowed and not. The one seemingly common characteristic among them was willingness to make this goal a reality. As the Times stated, "the diversity [of successful institutions] suggests that economic diversity is within the power of any top university". We need to hold college leaders accountable for these results and we're not.

2. Understanding That the Scope of the Problem will Require an Extraordinary Effort by Public Colleges and Universities

A key reason why we need to hold college leaders accountable for these results is the scope of the challenge. Arizona State President Michael Crow compellingly notes that just to achieve a 50 percent college attainment rate by 2020, we would have to produce 480,000 additional bachelor's degrees a year. For context, all the Ivy League schools and the 50 top liberal arts schools together produce fewer than 40,000 degrees a year with only 15 percent from low income families. That's why we need our public universities and colleges to get dramatically better results. Crow notes that if all public four year schools increased their college completion rates by 25 percent, they would add almost 300,000 new degrees a year. That's would make a huge dent.

Like the leaders highlighted in the College Access Index, some public universities are leading the way. Institutions, like State University of New York, Arizona State University and the University of Central Florida, are building capacity to serve more students. They are guaranteeing admission to local community college graduates and more students are entering every fall as transfers than as freshman. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher says of the effort, "On the horizon is this massive expectation that we are going to educate more people, we're going to educate a much more diverse population, a global population. And it's time. It's high time."

3. Focusing on Competencies and Engaging Private Employers

Part of that course correction also requires a more aggressive move towards preparing people with the competencies that employers really want and need. The United States is currently suffering a major jobs-to-skills mismatch. A recent study found that only 33 percent of business leaders believe that universities are effectively preparing students for the workforce. This is in stark contrast to 96 percent of college and university chief academic officers who believe that their institutions prepared students effectively for the workforce. This July, when job openings had reached an all-time high, 17 million Americans were unemployed and seeking work. Who's right? In my mind, it's not even a close call. The data tells us that the system is not working.

We need to move away from traditional models and towards a competency based approach that focuses on skills that employers want and that they help build. This kind of system would place college- and career-ready standards as the foundation for students to master. Google, who many consider the employer of tomorrow's workforce, already hires using a competency-based approach, stating on their website, "We're less concerned about grades and transcripts, and more interested in how you think." Efforts like those that are part of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions are trailblazing this type of work but it needs to be made the norm, not the oft-cited exception.

A recent Eduardo Porter column on the growing education gap between rich and poor powerfully summarized the challenge:

Fifty years ago, the black-white proficiency gap was one and a half to two times as large as the gap between a child from a family at the top 90th percentile of the income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile, according to Professor Reardon at Stanford. Today, the proficiency gap between the poor and the rich is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children.

In other words, even as one achievement gap narrowed, another opened wide. That kind of progress could dash one's hope in the leveling power of education.

We know how to fix this problem. Our failure to provide an education for everyone that is good enough for the 21st century does not have to be an American narrative.

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This post originally appeared as part of the #BensTake series on the Living Cities Blog.