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Changing Higher Ed to Maintain Hope of Social Mobility

By Angel B. Perez 

Higher education in America matters. For decades, it has served as the path toward success and upward social mobility for millions. The Higher Education Act of 1965 delivered the message that all in the United States who aspire to go to college should have the opportunity to do so. If we are to succeed as a nation, we must keep this vision alive.

While the higher education sector is currently challenged, it remains the greatest hope for ensuring that Americans compete in a rapidly evolving global workforce. A recent study from New America reminds us that higher education still offers families the best route toward upward mobility. However, access to college remains the greatest barrier to moving more Americans into the middle class and beyond.

Creating greater access for all who aspire to attend college will be done by engaging many sectors and tackling issues through a multi-pronged approach. This is our work in the Higher Education Committee of 50, or “Forward50,” a group of 50 higher education leaders charged with identifying challenges and presenting solutions to institutions, policy organizations, and Congress. The committee will make several recommendations to remove barriers for students and will tackle various issues that create barriers to success, including:

College Cost

The cost of college is one of the most difficult challenges for students and families to understand. We would never accept the same kind of ambiguity about cost from car dealerships or real estate agents, but we tolerate it from one of America’s oldest institutions—higher education. Colleges must do a better job of helping the public understand affordability and the fact that few people actually pay the sticker price. The perceived price of college is a major barrier to college access. According to a research study led by economist Sandy Baum at the Urban Institute, fewer than 20 percent of students enrolled in private higher education pay the list price. If more people knew this, more would apply. However, perception of college cost is just one issue. We must help simplify the process that families engage to apply for financial aid. The steps required to apply for financial aid would discourage anyone from applying, and the complex bureaucratic systems we have set up for students ensure that many who qualify don’t complete the process.

Rethinking Admission

As students applying to college grow increasingly diverse, so must our admission policies and practices. If the work of admission officers is to predict the success of students in college, then the United States has quite an antiquated system that needs an overhaul. We are still overly reliant on standardized tests as a college access measure, when research studies continue to prove these tests don’t predict college outcomes. As adult and nontraditional learners become the fastest-growing population in college, how will we take the depth and breadth of their experiences into account so we can open the doors a little wider for them? Higher education has a rather strange way of measuring institutional success. Instead of taking students who have potential and shaping them to become the best and the brightest by the time they graduate, colleges try to attract “the best and the brightest.” Imagine hospitals celebrating the fact that only healthy patients arrived at their doorsteps this year! If higher education is going to truly create access, it must rethink how it evaluates students for admission and remember that its purpose is to educate all students by meeting them where they are.

Rethinking Student Success

If we want more students to graduate from college, we must be intentional in setting them up for success. We must rethink all of our policies and procedures, some of which unintentionally impede students from graduating. Aspects of college that may seem simple to faculty and administrators—such as course selection, transfer-credit assignment, or course waivers—could prevent students from persisting. Our inability to keep up with technology that students use or to communicate via online channels they frequent creates a digital divide that causes frustration and impacts attrition. As the populations of our campuses grow more diverse and arrive with more complex needs, we must provide stronger mentorship, transition services, and yes—personal touch. Research continues to show that mentorship is one of the key variables in student success. Access is not about getting them in the door. It’s making sure they persist.

Our Way Forward

While the work of the Forward50 is well under way, it is important to note that it is happening in a very challenging climate. The Northeast and Midwest are facing dramatic decreases in the high school age population, putting tremendous pressures on enrollment and institutions’ financial goals. In areas where the student population is growing, the increase is due to more low-income and first-generation students, as well as students of color, leaving colleges to strategize about how they are going to support these students and find the resources to fund them. All of this undoubtedly will have an impact on access.

In addition, the national narrative against higher education has never been stronger. Our political and media climate consistently questions the value of college, and a Pew Research Center study shows that 58 percent of Republicans feel that higher education has a negative impact on the nation. 

Finally, it’s important to note that colleges and universities can’t do this alone. If federal and state support for students and colleges declines, colleges will continue to struggle financially and more of the burden to pay will be placed on students. This not only will impede access but also will increase student loan indebtedness. Higher education is a public good, and our government must make a greater investment. The issues the Forward50 is tackling and strategizing around have never been more important. The future of a nation is at risk. As higher education leaders, our students—all students—depend on us.