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ED Secretary: U.S. Higher Ed Becoming ‘Caste System’

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King says that when it comes to affordability “we are dangerously close to college obstructing, rather than driving, social mobility in this country.”U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King says that when it comes to affordability “we are dangerously close to college obstructing, rather than driving, social mobility in this country.”

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King praised colleges and universities that do an exceptional job when it comes to admitting and graduating students who rely on Pell Grants but also called on leaders of those institutions to do more to encourage others to follow suit.

The newly minted education chief also warned that the United States is becoming a “caste system of colleges and universities” in which more affluent students get personalized counseling, college prep courses and enjoy higher rates of admittance to elite universities, while poorer students too often “get shortchanged on these things.”

“When it comes to affordability, we need to recognize that when poor students borrow at least half their annual household income just to attend college, we are dangerously close to college obstructing, rather than driving, social mobility in this country,” King said.

He cited statistics that show students from America’s wealthiest families make up 72 percent of the student bodies at top colleges, whereas students from the poorest make up just three percent of enrollment at such schools.

King made his remarks Thursday at the Education Department’s headquarters during a forum titled “Championing Completion: Improving College Outcomes for Pell Students.”

The mostly private forum coincided with the department’s release of a new department report that singles out institutions of higher education that do an exceptionally good job at graduating Pell grant recipient students at an affordable cost.

While recognizing the many institutions that do “impressive and inspiring work” by increasing college access for low-income students, the report also claims that too many colleges and universities are “missing the mark.”

“Some remain beyond the economic reach of many low-income students, others provide access without doing enough to help students complete their degrees, and still others fail to prepare students for good jobs,” states the report, titled “Fulfilling the Promise, Serving the Need: Advancing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students.”

The report states that while more than two-thirds — 68 percent — of non-Pell Grant recipients earn their bachelor’s degree within six years, only half of Pell Grant recipients do the same.

“These trends tell us there is more work to do to help low-income students pursue their educational goals and earn essential skills and credentials,” the report states.

The Pell Grant forum and report come at a time of dueling budget proposals that could either expand or restrict the purchasing power of Pell Grants.

For instance, the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee’s plan would eliminate a scheduled $120 increase in the maximum Pell Grant and hold the maximum award level at $5,815 and also freeze the maximum grant for 10 years.

“This freeze reduces the share of public four-year college costs covered by the maximum grant from an already record low of 29 percent to 21 percent by 2026,” said Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the The Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that focuses on college affordability.

By contrast, Abernathy said, President Barack Obama’s proposed budget “fully funds the scheduled increase in the maximum Pell Grant and permanently ties it to inflation after 2017, which is projected to increase the maximum grant by $1,300 over the next 10 years.”

Also Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office release new figures that show Pell Grant program costs are “significantly lower than prior estimates,” according to TICAS, and “will not face a funding gap for nine years,” or until fiscal 2025.

Specifically, the figures show that the Pell Grant program is expected to cost $343.9 million from 2016 to 2026, whereas federal outlays for the program during the same period are $339.9 million.

“The Pell Grant program is the federal government’s most valuable and effective investment in higher education,” Lauren Asher, president at TICAS, said in a statement Thursday. “If we do not strengthen it, millions of students will be forced to borrow more, drop out, or forgo college altogether.”

Currently, about 7.8 million students rely on Pell Grants. The figure is expected to climb to 9.04 million by 2026, CBO figures show.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell said at the forum that the Obama Administration will focus the remainder of its time on making sure that higher education “continues to be an engine of social mobility,” even though, he said, there is “evidence that that engine may be sputtering a bit and in some cases may be beginning to move in reverse.”

A pall of uncertainty hovered over the conference in the form of what King referred to as “an increasingly divided country, and an increasingly polarizing presidential election, with deeply conflicting notions of what it means to be an American.”

Forum attendee Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for nonprofits that work on college access, said she was hopeful that next Administration would “continue to value postsecondary opportunity as both an equity imperative as well as the path to economic competitiveness.”

Based on an agenda obtain by Diverse, much of Thursday’s forum focused on topics that ranged from ways to use data to improve educational outcomes to the “critical decisions” that institutional leaders must make in allocating resources for low-income students.

Among the institutions credited by the Education Department for outperforming its peers with respect to enrolling and graduating Pell grant recipients was Rutgers University ― Newark.

Forty-six percent of the school’s enrollees are Pell Grant recipients, and they graduate within six years at a 62 percent — a rate that is just a few percentage points behind the overall graduation rate of 68 percent. The annual net price for Pell grant recipients at Rutgers is about $8,200, and 74 percent of the school’s Pell grant recipients were earning more than $25,000 — the salary of the typical high school graduate — six years after graduating, the report states.

Peter T. Englot, senior vice chancellor for public affairs at Rutgers University — Newark, credited a number of campus-led efforts with helping the university achieve those results, such as Rutgers Future Scholars. The program annually guarantees a full-ride to 50 low-income 8th graders in Newark who meet certain criteria and take advantage of the academic preparation provided through the program.

He also credited the Honors Living-Learning Community, a new program that takes a more holistic approach toward admissions for young people who “may be missed by relying solely on academic indicators,” according to Rutgers. The program is envisioned as an honors initiative that “challenged traditional frameworks for ‘honors’ and merit and that emphasized college access and success through a cohort model in which students live and learn together to become citizens with agency in their communities,” program materials state.

Englot said Rutgers University — Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor believes that initiatives such as the HLLC “speak directly to the concerns expressed” Thursday by Secretary King and Undersecretary Mitchell.

“Our nation has a compelling interest in making sure that the pathways to and through college are visibly open to all talented and qualified individuals,” Cantor said in a statement provided to Diverse.

“One way to do that is to connect questions of merit directly to questions of social impact,” Cantor said. “What, indeed, is ‘merit’ if it reproduces the very same disparities in income and life circumstances that we see growing nationwide?”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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