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Perspectives: True Access to American Colleges & Universities

What might a Black kid from the Bronx have in common with a White kid from Appalachia and a Latino kid from Los Angeles?

All three might come from families unable to afford college tuition, and all three might attend underperforming high schools, meaning they might not be ready for college – and certainly not an elite college or university – even if they could find the money.

And the fact is there will be more high school students like them graduating over the coming decades than ever before.

These facts have been drowned out by the recent headlines about wealthy colleges and universities making college more affordable, by the government proposing to set endowment income spending rates, and by the public’s new expectations that every college can and should follow the financial aid programs of the elite universities and colleges like Harvard, Yale, Swarthmore and Carleton.

After World War II, there was the GI Bill of Rights.  We need to create and implement a New American Student “Bill of Access” to serve a very different high school graduate over the next few decades.  And by “we,” I mean the elite colleges and universities along with state universities and small liberal arts institutions, state and federal agencies, private industry and every community college.

Wealthy educational institutions in America may educate less than 3 percent of our undergraduates, but they set the tone for the rest of us.  A few already employ flexible admissions policies so that they can bring in higher percentages of low-income students.  However, they also need to implement academic “bridge” programs that help underprepared, yet talented students succeed once they are admitted to a good college or university.

All of us in higher education can find ways to open our doors wider to needy students as well.  You see, access to college begins at the K-12 level and most clearly in the early grades of school.  Programs like GEAR UP are models of support and intervention that involve students, teachers, parents, and local agencies.  Likewise, summer bridge programs can be effective at helping students make the transition from high school to college and increasing retention and graduation rates.  Finally, educating first-generation or economically needy students requires a supportive college learning environment.  It is only after these other aspects of access are present that financial aid becomes an important factor in college access.

The federal government has a huge role to play in making college accessible academically and affordable financially.  How about providing financial incentives to those institutions that are aggressively enrolling low-income students – the kind of students ever more present in the educational pipeline?  What they should not do is impose spending rates on college endowments, as was proposed recently.

For example, my institution, Berea College, serves families with an average annual income of less than $30,000.  Berea has robust Upward Bound and GEAR UP programs that reach more than 4,500 K-12 youth in five poor rural Kentucky counties.  We provide bridge math, language, and other programs to help students gain access and succeed.  And we offer full-tuition scholarships to all 1,500 students who attend Berea  – 87 percent of whom are Pell-eligible – and require all students to work.  But if we had to spend 5 percent of our endowment during the early 1990s, we would not have been able to survive the recession of 2000-2003.  This is not the place for the Federal government to intervene.

I believe that access – understood as pre-college preparation, bridge academic programming, and sufficient financial aid – can be achieved, and without reducing educational opportunities for wealthy and middle-class families.  But let us not mistake real access for needy families with the recent announcements of new scholarship programs at elite institutions.

Larry Shinn is president of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, which has not charged tuition for more than 100 years.


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