Few issues over the last several decades have been the subject of more talk, reports, initiatives, and debate than the persistent gaps in college success for underserved students. The devastating impact of those gaps on first generation, low income, and adult students and students of color have become more apparent as incontrovertible data has documented the growing social and economic value of a quality college credential in a changing economy (e.g., see powerful research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce).
That makes the recent analysis by The New York Times showing that “black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago” all the more disheartening. To be fair, there has been some progress at less selective colleges and raw numbers are up — though not in proportion to the increase of these groups numbers in the population. When combined with other analyses however, the picture darkens. The Education Trust, in its Rising Tide 2015 report documents a mere one percent decline in the graduation gap for underrepresented minorities over a 10-year period (2003-2013). At this rate it will take 140 years to “close the gap.” This lack of fairness is not just a matter of race and ethnicity. The overlapping issue of income is a powerful indicator of who has access to those valuable college credentials. The 2017 Pell Institute report on equity in higher education shows high income quartile 24 year olds are nearly five times as likely to have a four-year degree by age 24 than low income quartile students and half again as likely as even students in the third-income quartile. With nearly four out of five high-income 24-year-olds with a four-year degree, it does not take a great deal of deduction to understand how and by whom the growing need for a talented and educated workforce will be met.
But now for some good news: it turns out we do know a great deal about how to better enroll and graduate students from these underrepresented groups. Organizations like Complete College America and The Education Trust are demonstrating game-changing next practices that are enabling some colleges to dramatically reduce or eliminate gaps. Illinois State University, according to data provided by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, is one of those colleges. The challenge is to make this systemic and not a thousand (or less) points of light in the higher education universe. We also know what that will require. It is not as one person comically said “rocket science.” It requires (1) sustained leadership commitment to infusing fairness in enrollment and graduation into every area of the university from vice presidents to faculty to staff; (2) aggressive goals and transparent metrics to measure progress; (3) accountability at all levels for progress; (4) laser-like focus on proven next practices [e.g., redesigned developmental education, intrusive advising, better student data that allow just-in-time interventions, clear and efficient pathways to degrees, offering courses when students need them (not when it is convenient to teach them), smarter distribution of financial aid to reach those who need it most, ensuring completion of math and English requirements and program of study choices in the first year] and (5) formation of strong partnerships with P-12 schools, non-profits, philanthropy, and policy makers to provide a strong and complete safety net for students. Again, it is hard work but it is not rocket science. Lives and the future of our economy and democracy depend on our success. We do not have another 35 years to waste.