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Report: Income Inequality Poses Obstacle for Obama College Completion Drive

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States will not reach the Obama administration’s goal of becoming the most college-educated country in the world by 2020 unless the country eliminates the income-based inequalities that cause a gap in degree attainment between rich and poor.

Such was the conclusion of a new report released Wednesday by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

“Income-based inequality must be seen as a serious problem,” Dr. Andre Nichols, author of the study, titled Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal: The Threat of Income-Based Inequality in Education, said at a panel discussion at the Capitol Visitors Center.

“There’s no way we’re going to be able to reach the 2020 goal unless we get serious and target resources toward students that need them most.”

To illustrate his point, Nichols — both in his talk and in the report — disaggregated degree attainment data in the United States in order to take a more nuanced look at how the nation ranks in comparison to other nations in degree attainment.

For example, while the United States ranks eighth in the world in bachelor’s degree attainment by age 24, according to the report, the nation would actually rank first if all Americans got a degree at the same rate — 58.8 percent — as the upper-income half of the 25- to 34-year-old population.

However, if all Americans earned a degree at the same rate of the lower income half of the population, which is 12 percent, America would trail all but Brazil among the top 36 developed nations in degree attainment, the report shows.

“If we had addressed this (disparity) we would have already reached the president’s goal,” Nichols said. “This problem is keeping us from remaining economically competitive and achieving the 2020 goal.”

The 20/20 report also took aim at federal funding formulas that reward states that spend more on students at the K-12 level, criticized Congress for even thinking about scaling back the Pell Grant program and recommended setting and tracking goals around reducing income-based inequalities on “key educational outcomes.”

Though the stated purpose at Wednesday’s forum was to get a clearer picture on what obstacles lay in the path of the administration’s college completion agenda, one of the not-so-subtle aims was to increase support for the recently decimated federal TRIO and GEAR-UP programs, which provide academic support to low-income students.

Through the final 2011 budget bill, TRIO programs were slashed by $25 million, to $828.4 million. GEAR UP was cut by $20 million, to $303 million, according to published reports.

“In reality, the Obama administration and Congress did not target TRIO and GEAR UP for public policy reasons,” Stephen Burd wrote in a recent post on “Higher Ed Watch,” a blog he writes for the New America Foundation’s Higher Education Initiative. “They were merely the victims of last-minute budget dealing that was, in the area of higher education policy, focused almost entirely on finding the money to keep the $5,550 maximum Pell Grant in place.”

Be that as it may, the 20/20 report calls for increasing funding for TRIO and GEAR UP supplemental college access and support services.

“Instead of investing additional resources, as we recommend, the decision to decrease funding for these programs will directly take supplemental support services from the students and communities that need the most support,” the report states.

Similar plugs for TRIO were interspersed throughout the panel discussion, which was moderated by Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunities in Higher Education.

In some ways, the TRIO advocacy was to be expected. The Pell Institute is the research arm of the Council for Opportunity in Education, which advocates for TRIO programs.

While no one questioned the call to increase funding for TRIO programs, belief in the effectiveness of TRIO programs is hardly universal.

The Pell Institute report states that research and evaluation of TRIO programs has shown that the programs are effective. A federally commissioned evaluation from 2009, however, found that one TRIO program, Upward Bound, had “no detectable effect on the rate of overall postsecondary enrollment or the type or selectivity of postsecondary institution attended for the average eligible participant.”

Such data, which COE previously has sought to debunk, were absent from Wednesday’s discussion.

Panelist Tom Mortenson, a policy analyst at the Postsecondary Education Opportunity as well as a Pell Institute Senior Scholar, noted that TRIO reaches about 5 percent of the eligible low-income population.

“We ought to be ashamed of that record,” Mortenson said. “TRIO ought to be 20 times the size that it is today.”

The report and discussion went beyond the merits of TRIO.

Mortenson also lamented the overall drop in the relative value of Pell Grants, arguing that if the grants today bought the same thing they did in years gone by, they would be $12,000.

“And we’re taking some credit for increasing the maximum Pell grant award to $5,500,” Mortenson said. “I don’t understand. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for allowing the Pell Grant to lose so much purchasing power.”

Dr. Wendell D. Hall, the assistant director at the VSA Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said he appreciated the 20/20 report. However, he questioned the study’s suggestion to make Pell Grants available only to students who meet certain criteria, such as achieving a certain GPA for juniors and seniors, or placing more stringent credit-hour requirements per semester.

“Intuitively that makes a lot of sense,” Hall said of imposing GPA requirements on Pell Grants. But making that a federal mandate is “a different conversation. We have to be very careful with the alternatives we propose.”

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a Pell Institute Advisory Board member, highlighted the portion of the report that says low-income students should not be tracked primarily into two-year and for-profit institutions, where statistics show they will be more likely to drop out.

“We need to find ways to essentially provide some affirmative action for low-income students to go to four-year institutions, because they are, all things being equal, much more likely to graduate than if they attend a for-profit or a community college,” he said.

He also said efforts to bolster TRIO and GEAR UP “makes a lot of sense.”

Panelist Zakiya Smith, a senior Advisor for education for the White House Domestic Policy Council, called the recommendations of the 20/20 report “spot on.”

“We have to do a better job at each piece of the pipeline to get to the 2020 goal,” she said of the report’s recommendations to address disparities at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. “We have to make sure we don’t create a system where all middle class kids get bachelor’s degrees and everyone else gets something else.”

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