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Perspectives: Education Reform and the Access/Success Pendulum

In education, reform tends to follow cycles, often bouncing from one extreme to another without considering the possibility of incorporating multiple perspectives simultaneously. Policies aimed at helping more underrepresented students enter college and complete degrees have bounced from one pole to another, embracing access as the primary goal without giving adequate attention to successful completion, which results in many underrepresented students coming through the campus gate but relatively few leaving with degrees. 

There has been considerable publicity lately about the U.S.’s declining rankings in international comparisons of young people with college degrees. Today, we are not among the top 10 developed countries for degree attainment, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with flat completion rates placing us so low in the rankings. Americans are waking up to the fact that something must be done to increase the rate at which our youth gain degrees—especially youth of color—if the U.S. is to remain competitive in international markets. Just 21 percent of African-Americans and an appalling 12 percent of Latinos have completed a degree by age 29. The Obama administration has set an ambitious goal for the U.S. to lead the world in the percentage of adults with a college degree by 2020, but this will require that we pay attention to both access and success in ways that we haven’t before.

Breaking Down Barriers

Much of the first half of the 20th century was characterized by a long march toward providing equal access to a basic education to African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and, to some extent, Asian students. Up to midcentury, these groups fought just to gain access to schools with equal resources. Importantly, many of the court rulings that resulted in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which promised access to the same schools for all children regardless of color, were decisions about access in higher education, such as the Sweatt v. Painter decision of 1950 that opened access to the University of Texas law school for students of color. Having been denied access to an equal education, it was logical that all efforts would be concentrated on the access issue during this period, culminating in Brown, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Higher Education Act and the creation of Work-Study under the War on Poverty. The barriers were supposed to fall, and the students were to have the resources to enroll.

By 1975-76, an African-American or Latino high school graduate had an equal chance of attending college as a White high school graduate. The civil rights era shone a light on the yawning gaps in educational attainment that existed between White students and students of color, and the mid- to late-1960s and mid-1970s saw a strong focus on the importance of access to higher education, including opening the segregated public universities in the South and creating tribal colleges for Indian nations to help narrow those gaps. Almost all selective universities adopted affirmative action. Nonetheless, by 1975 only 15 percent of non-White young adults held college degrees compared with 24 percent for White students. It would take time, though, before the challenge of college completion became a focal point in struggles for equality.

Forty years ago the focus was on providing more equality of opportunity through affirmative action and other strategies to increase access to college. And it worked. However, by the early 1980s it became clear that access was not enough. Students of color entered college at all-time-high rates but they were too often not completing degrees. This fact stimulated competing responses between conservatives and progressives. On one hand, social conservatives argued that the students should not have been admitted because they weren’t prepared, which was the reason they weren’t completing degrees. Efforts to limit access to more selective colleges by redirecting “under-prepared” students to two-year colleges coupled with assaults on affirmative action policies were underway.

The 1980s became the era of “educational excellence,” in which a conservative rhetoric focused on framing the problem as incompatibility of excellence and diversity. Conservatives argued that American education had become mediocre because standards were not high enough. Although this was most directly communicated in the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” document that critiqued public schools, it was also a theme that played out in higher education. The question was posed in mainstream media as well as in academic publications: Could we have internationally competitive universities and still maintain a commitment to diversity? Weren’t these two goals fundamentally incompatible?

Dr. Alexander Astin countered the argument that excellence and equity were in conflict in the academy with his 1985 book, Achieving Educational Excellence, in which he proffered that excellence in higher education institutions in multicultural societies was only possible through diversity. The debate is like choosing between giving a child food or health care—both are necessary and strongly related. In addressing the completion problem, social progressives  argued that, if the country was to move forward socially and economically, it required that marginalized populations be admitted to selective universities and be supported to succeed there.

College success became a new focus, and programs to help ensure that students of color completed degrees increased in number and importance on campuses. However, support programs served few students, and the nagging gaps remained between White (and increasingly Asian) students and students of color with respect to degree attainment. Research showed that being admitted to a competitive college was a completion strategy because affirmative action students’ completion rates in these colleges were higher than in open-access colleges because there was a clear pathway and positive peer groups. Graduation was the default outcome.

There was also a change in the political climate of the country in the 1980s, ushered in by the Reagan years and the retreat from affirmative action and progressive policies to support low-income and students of color in higher education. The Bakke affirmative action Supreme Court decision at the end of the 1970s sent out alarms that the era of affirmative action was on life support. At the same time, fewer colleges were built, admissions standards were raised and tuition constantly went up faster than family incomes as state support declined. The impact was particularly pernicious for students of color, including Latinos, who did not have the HBCU-type institutions and were concentrated in states that relied too heavily on community colleges. Thus, we saw a steady downturn in access through the 1980s and increasing gaps among advantaged and disadvantaged groups in college admissions. The “success” part of the higher education equation was lost in the new swing of the pendulum away from access and an increasing concern that access to higher education was being lost for the nation’s minorities.

The 1996 anti-affirmative action initiative (Proposition 209) in California and the Hopwood decision, which likewise found  affirmative action illegal in Texas the same year, resulted in huge drops in admission to selective public colleges in those states. Proposition 209 was followed by similar initiatives and court decisions in other states, with predictable downturns in minority access. During the 1990s, concerns of progressives once again became fixated on the access problem. 


Changing Course


More recently, we have seen a return to the discussion about the “success problem,” with colleges under attack for providing too much remediation. Social conservatives have once again suggested the place for students shortchanged by inferior high schools is community colleges, not the four-year institutions from which they are more likely to graduate with a degree. The dramatic growth of the Latino population—now the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority—has also raised new concerns about college success as a recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center revealed that Latinos go to college at rates comparable to other groups but they lag far behind others in degrees. The gaps in college attainment for this group are alarming in states where they constitute the majority of the school-age population. Financial aid policies that reward “merit” rather than need have proved debilitating for African-Americans, Latinos and other low-income groups as working too many hours makes completing college much more difficult. And so once again we shift our lens toward the challenges of success in college.

In a nation that will soon have a majority of non-White students in its public schools, the stakes are too high to focus on only one issue at a time. Access of the right kind fosters success and completion. Focus on support for students who fall behind makes access a better investment. We must do both all the time.  

 — Drs. Patricia Gándara and Gary Orfield are professors of education and co-direct The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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