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Keeping an Eye on College Access

Keeping an Eye on College Access

Bridget Terry Long

Title: Assistant Professor of Education,
Harvard Graduate School of Education,
Cambridge, Mass.

Education: Ph.D., Economics, Harvard
University; M.A., Economics, Harvard
University; A.B, Economics, Certificate in
Afro-American Studies, Princeton University

Age: 29

Not many 29-year-olds get invited to the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. The scholars associated with that august institution tend to be male and often conservative.

But Dr. Bridget Terry Long, who two years ago became the youngest assistant professor on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), is on her way. And she’s done it the old-fashioned way, by building up impressive research credentials in an area of critical importance to society: the role of governmental and institutional policy in shaping college access, choice and outcomes.

Long asks hard-nosed questions about the plight of underprepared students, state tuition policies, and the institutional impact of financial aid, just to name a few issues. She wants to know: Do state financial aid programs cause colleges to raise prices? How do we explain rising income and wage inequality among the college educated? Who benefits from state subsidies? Who pays?

The intensity of Long’s drive to explore those issues lies, to a certain extent, in her own family history. Though Long and her sister were raised in Chicago, her parents hail from a small town near the Virginia-North Carolina border. It’s an economically depressed part of the state, far from the robust economies of the Hampton Roads and the Northern Virginia corridor.

Long’s parents got a break — her father got a job at Xerox when he left the Army — and the couple escaped the cycle of factory jobs that was the fate of most of those born in that region. They became nontraditional-aged college students. Long’s mother, who had been a secretary, now teaches business education to high school students. Both parents raised their girls to view education as a virtual holy grail.

But within her own family there is a clear split in terms of college access. “When I look at my cousins, those who went to college are successful and have stable middle-class lifestyles. Those who chose not to go, in the current generation, are really struggling,” she says. “And with my family it’s really split by gender. Four out of five of the girls have finished college. None of the boys have.”

Long was fortunate to have mentors every step of the way. “I’ve been incredibly blessed,” she says. “…I was lucky in going to a school like Princeton, where you have constant contact with the professors who, once you showed the least bit of interest, were more than willing to help you along and guide you.”

She’s now hard at work researching the recent move among states to abandon affirmative action programs in favor of percentage programs. She’s also studying remediation in Ohio.

“The concern is that we’re getting kids into college, but they’re not staying,” she says.

Long notes that researchers are beginning to reorient themselves on the question of access. “We’re discovering that we think a lot about access, but we don’t know much about what happens when students get in the door,” she says. But when the data start to roll in, Long will be waiting to crunch the numbers, to offer her interpretations, and to testify before Congress if need be.

“These questions are huge,” Long says with a sense of urgency.

— By Kendra Hamilton

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