Achieving Higher Levels of Access and Success in Postsecondary Education

Theme: Access & Success

Charlie Nelms
Vice President
Indiana University, IN
Constituent Group:
CAO / Administrators
Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of man — the balance-wheel of the social machinery. Horace Mann

Growing up in the Delta Region of Arkansas in the 1950s and 60s, in an area rife with racial segregation, poverty and political disenfranchisement, I experienced the profound and unrelenting effects of legalized discrimination. One of 11 children born to subsistence farmers, I never attended school for more than six months in any given year. The schoolhouse was a place my siblings and I entered only after the planting and harvesting seasons were over. Despite this bleak reality, my parents and others recognized that education, voting and land ownership were the pathways to equal opportunity. They instilled in us the steadfast belief that "if you get a good education, no one can take it away from you."

Although the all-white school board in my community was comprised of plantation owners who never embraced the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, this did not dissuade my parents and teachers from their unswerving faith in the transformative value of education. They, like many other black farmers, mortgaged their small farms many times over to pay for their children to attend historically black colleges, which were the only choices available in the south prior to the 1970s. My siblings and I were so convinced by my parents' admonition to get a good education that 10 of us pursued some form of post-secondary education. Included among us are teachers, social workers, skilled tradesmen, public health practitioners and university administrators. We, in turn, have passed along to our children and grandchildren an abiding belief in the value of education.

Based on objective measures, even the most ardent critic must concede that considerable progress has been made in increasing college access and success during the past several decades. Due to numerous state and federal funding efforts, along with college and university outreach initiatives, since 1976, increases in the undergraduate enrollment of African American, American Indian, Asian American and Hispanic students range from 110% to 1140%1. Similarly, impressive gains have been achieved in the enrollment of first generation Caucasian and rural students. While college attendance is no longer limited to upper middle class whites, it is a fact that students from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds are disproportionately represented in community colleges and less competitive public four-year colleges and universities.

Despite the avowed commitment to diversity, America's elite public and private universities continue to be homogeneous places of learning with respect to income distribution, ethnicity and social class. Students from underrepresented backgrounds, for example, comprise 12% of the enrollment at elite public and private colleges and more than 26% of the enrollment at other types of post-secondary institutions.2 In terms of degrees, in 2004 only 11% of the baccalaureate degrees granted by elite institutions were awarded to underrepresented minorities.3

A review of the literature in higher education reveals that diversity is viewed as a strategic concern for all sectors of higher education. For example, the American Council on Education through its widely acclaimed bi-annual conference, "Educating All of One Nation," attracts thousands of participants interested in learning about promising practices in recruiting, retaining and graduating students from diverse backgrounds4. At the same time, national and community foundations fund an array of scholarships and academic enrichment programs designed to increase the pool of students prepared for college success.

These efforts notwithstanding, there are several worrisome trends that must be addressed if the higher education community is to significantly increase access and success for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Prerequisites for doing so include the recognition that diversity is not a substitute for equity — and a "one-size" approach does not fit all. Failure to recognize these facts precludes the higher education community from utilizing a variety of affirmative measures that address issues of race, socio-economic status and low levels of educational achievement.

Diversity and equity are often used interchangeably, but they are really quite different. Diversity focuses on valuing cultural and social differences, and it has a qualitative dimension. Most of us in the academy have witnessed first-hand the value of diversity in our classrooms and on our campuses. Higher education is becoming more diverse every day, with an ever-widening range of people from different disciplines, geographic areas, socio-economic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Diversity in higher education promotes a healthy democracy by strengthening communities and enriching the workplace. Research shows that students will have more relationships that are diverse if they are exposed to diversity during their university experience. They interact more with individuals who are different from them and are open to living in more diverse neighborhoods. They are more likely to be among the group that Richard Florida calls the "creative class"5. It will be this creative class whose innovations and ideas will fuel our knowledge economy. Yet diversity often loses steam outside of higher education and the workplace, even though it is critical to ensuring our global competitiveness.

Diversity is not a luxury; it is a necessity. We fail our students if we do not prepare them to live in a global society. We also fail our society if we do not move beyond diversity to equity. People often think of equity as treating everyone the same. It is entirely possible to have a diverse environment, but not necessarily an equitable one. The principle of equity goes far beyond appreciating cultural and racial differences. It demands the full participation of historically disenfranchised people in any given system. In contrast to diversity, equity has a more quantitative dimension.

Do enrollments at our colleges and universities represent various members of our population in the same proportions? Not likely. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education, J.P. Greene and G. Forster found that Blacks make up 14% of the total population of 18-year-olds but only 9% of all college-ready graduates6. In addition, Hispanics, who represent 17% of the total population of 18-year-olds, make up only 9% of all college-ready graduates. Remember, these are college-ready graduates, since far too many underrepresented students drop out long before their 18th birthday. The representation of people attending nearly all college campuses across this country would have similar and troubling trends in representation. Equity must transcend our student populations and include university faculty, administration and staff as well.

Why is it imperative that the academy concern itself with issues of equity, especially when these issues are not being effectively addressed in the culture at large? There are several reasons, but perhaps the most pressing is that higher education plays a sorting and certifying role in our society. One's skills are often less important than whether one has earned a degree. The college degree is a calling card, and universities are the gateway to higher earnings. Studies indicate higher education leads to higher earnings and numerous possibilities for a higher quality of life.7 Even more important for the health of our democracy, higher education correlates with greater levels of civic engagement. Research shows a higher level of education is associated with greater voter participation and with more volunteering. Both voting and volunteering are important indicators of a democratic society's well being. Higher education increases cultural capital. Some in our society are experiencing an historic decline in their cultural capital, and until their lack of access to higher education is addressed, this will remain a serious problem.

Worrisome Trends

While the issues related to higher levels of access and success are complex and defy simple characterizations, four trends must be addressed if the higher education community is truly committed to making diversity, equity and excellence more evident. The first is the growing movement to raise admissions standards, which has developed hand-in-glove with standardized testing. While this might appear to be the best way of guaranteeing excellence in higher education, it has a paradoxical effect. If high-stakes testing is relied upon to measure the potential of college applicants, those students whose skills and life experiences cannot be measured in this way will fall by the wayside. Schools that can prepare their students with coaching and other extra assistance, that is to say, schools with the greatest resources, will always produce the highest scoring students. Cultural capital will continue accruing to those with the greatest resources, without regard to principles of diversity and equity, which are the foundations of our democracy. Equal opportunity will become a relic from another era, and the playing field will remain as uneven as it was during my years growing up Arkansas.

The second trend that promises to undermine the very foundations of our democracy's commitment to educational access is the shift from need-based to merit-based financial aid. According to research from the Lumina Foundation, while rising college costs affect all students, low-income students are hardest hit8. Over the last decade, need-based aid has increased 99 percent while merit-based aid has increased 348% and, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Program, the trend continues9. Need-based aid provides the foundation for higher education among those in the lower SES quartiles, but the shift to merit aid leaves fewer resources for need-based aid. This trend has serious consequences for underrepresented students and their families, and it has been the topic of significant research on college affordability and its impact10.

This growing shift to merit-based aid raises the concern for the third worrisome trend. The movement of a majority of minority, immigrant and first-generation students to community colleges, proprietary educational institutions, or even the military has been the result of higher college costs and fewer need-based aid dollars. Students in these institutions are less likely to graduate and less likely to transfer to four-year colleges. Are we witnessing the development of a caste system in education, one that is sorting and classifying its students, preparing them for a very different future than that of the creative class? Although community colleges have played a vital role in helping to democratize American postsecondary education, they and proprietary educational institutions may in some cases emphasize training rather than learning, preparation for jobs rather than life. In preparing students to fill jobs in specific industries, these institutions can end up gambling with the future of their students, betting that specific industries will provide stable employment. However, in the new knowledge economy, most Americans will change employment numerous times during the course of their work lives. Specific job training may be of little help in times of transition. Those who can thrive during transitional periods in our economy will be those who can adapt the most quickly to change: those who can "learn, unlearn, and relearn."11

The final disturbing trend is the under-participation of minority males in higher education. The participation of young men in general has been acknowledged as a problem12. Within the minority population, the problem is even more acute. In Indiana, for example, only four in 10 Black and Hispanic boys will earn a high school diploma13. An analysis of recent graduation rates nationwide confirms this alarming disparity. In support of this data, I have personally observed that at many Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the male to female ratio is as high as one to three. We have all heard the frequently cited statistic that there are more young Black men incarcerated than in college. By relegating an entire population of our society to this kind of fate, we risk increasing the sense of injustice and anger that is often voiced in Hip-Hop lyrics.

Those who have been historically and systematically excluded from society may end up feeling they have little stake in its success. Those who believe they have no future can more easily conclude that they have little to lose. They may take greater risks with their own lives and with the lives of others. Hopelessness is the enemy of cultural capital. It is also one of the most serious threats to any democracy because it erodes the belief that civic engagement can make a difference. Fortunately, I believe there are real reasons for cautious optimism about the future, if we choose to think creatively about the trends I've described. There is no reason the nation that expanded the higher education system for World War II veterans, a very diverse group, cannot overcome our contemporary challenges. To ensure the future of diversity, equity and excellence in higher education and throughout our society, we must act decisively.

Meeting the Challenge

The first thing we must do is address diversity within the leadership of the academy. If those charged with running our universities do not themselves embody diversity and equity, we are likely to keep talking a good game without producing real results. We need greater numbers of university presidents, deans, chancellors and provosts from historically underrepresented groups. This will not be an easy task, but this change at the top must occur if we wish to move forward and training these future leaders must begin today.

Second, we must enter into more meaningful relations with the K-12 system so that we engage communities and strengthen the education pipeline. We must continue to expand effective pre-collegiate programs and outreach activities that help families plan and prepare for college, beginning in elementary school. Data about the growing "achievement gap" among Black and Hispanic students should compel us to take immediate action. For many underrepresented students, college matriculation is the culmination of years of sacrifice. We must remain mindful of the critical role we can play in helping students and their families overcome the obstacles on the path to higher education. We are partners in this effort. Only then can we begin to ensure greater educational access for higher education.

One of the largest obstacles to access is the escalating cost of higher education. This combined with the shift from need-based to merit-based aid trend mentioned earlier is discouraging more and more underrepresented students from even dreaming of higher education. We must work hard to recalibrate the way aid is distributed, so that we are not contributing to an educational caste system. By diversifying higher education leadership and partnering with K-12 communities, we are more likely to succeed in this goal. Equity, like power, is more often won by hard struggle than granted outright.

Fourth, we must cultivate in our students the belief that a community college education can be an effective route to the baccalaureate degree. Community colleges are a distinctly American institution. They represent our nation's finest democratic values and offer a vast array of educational opportunities. Yet community college students who wish to transfer to four-year colleges often face innumerable obstacles. We must help these students by expanding cooperation and collaboration among all institutions of higher education. By facilitating the transfer process for community college students, we can also help address the broader issues of educational access and equity.

Finally, just as we strive to throw open the doors of educational opportunity, we must make sure students experience the depth and breadth of learning available in higher education, including service-learning, internship opportunities and international study. Research by the National Survey of Student Engagement and others highlights the importance of student engagement to success both in college and after graduation. Engagement in college life is more likely to lead to civic engagement after graduation14.

Unfortunately, many historically underrepresented students do not fully participate in the life of their institutions, whether for social or economic reasons. This means that while they have received access to higher education, they are not benefiting from the experience as much as they could. The lack of engagement can also be related to problems in recruitment and retention. Education is a dynamic organism, where each part is connected to the whole. We must make both student access and success a priority.

So much has happened since Campus Compact was founded in 1985. Over the years, we have seen hope and fear in constant battle. We have seen cause for discouragement and cause for celebration. I remember the day Nelson Mandela was released from his captivity. It reminded me of the promise my classmates and I made after Dr. King's assassination and renewed my faith in the potential of humans to move mountains. Mandela has said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

I believe in our power to overcome the challenges we face in creating a world in which diversity, equity and excellence can flourish. What lies within us is greater than what lies before us. As we pause to commemorate 20 years in the life of Campus Compact, we can and must envision a future that is more equitable than our present. In this future, educational access and success will be recognized as our birthright. We have the power to learn, unlearn and relearn. We have the potential to live up to democracy's promise and to do what must be done.

1Digest of Education Statistics. Table 205 - Total Fall Enrollment in Degree-granting Institutions, by Race/ethnicity, Sex, Attendance Status, and Level of Student: Selected years, 1976 - 2004. back

2 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS): Fall 2004 Enrollment and Academic Year 2004-05 Completions Surveys. United States Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. back

3Ibid. back

4 The American Council on Education's 10th Educating All of One Nation conference was held on October 6-8, 2005 in Phoenix, Arizona. The theme of this conference was "Realizing America's Promise: Embracing Diversity, Discovery, and Change." back

5The Rise of the Creative Class, and How it's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Richard Florida (2002), Basic Books. back

6Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States, J.P. Greene and G. Forster, Manhattan Institute, (3) September 2003. back

7 See Table 137 - Earnings by Educational Attainment, 1975-2001, Postsecondary Education Opportunity: The Mortenson Research Seminar on Public Policy Analysis of Opportunity for Postsecondary Education. back

8 "Restricted Access: States Enter the Merit Aid Race," Student Access and Success News, Lumina Foundation for Education, June 23, 2006. back

9 See National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Program's annual report. back

10 See Affordability topical index on the Postsecondary Opportunity Education. back

11 "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Quote by Alvin Toffler. back

12 See Gender topical index on the Postsecondary Opportunity Education. back

13 "27% of Indiana Students Don't Graduate. Study: Less than Half of Hispanic, Black Boys get Diplomas," by Staci Hupp, Indianapolis Star, June 21, 2006. back

14 See NSSE website for research reports. back

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