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Initiative Aimed at Increasing Access for Lower-Income Students Is Succeeding, but Results Are Slowing

A report from the American Talent Initiative (ATI) shows impressive results in terms of increasing the number and share of Pell Grant recipients at high-performing institutions, but momentum appears to be waning.

ATI was formed in December 2016 with the goal of increasing the number of low- and middle-income students at well-resourced institutions that have six-year graduation rates of 70% or above. It is co-managed by The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R. The target number is to enroll at least 50,000 new students by 2025.

There are 320 ATI-eligible institutions meeting the required graduation rate, and 128 have thus far become ATI members. Initial results are impressive. As noted in the report “Expanding Opportunity for Lower-Income Students: Three Years of the American Talent Initiative,” there was increased enrollment of 20,696 low- and middle-income students in the first two years of ATI (2016–18).

ATI member institutions were responsible for 62% of the progress toward the goal. The report notes that enrollment data collected thus far from member institutions for the 2018–19 academic year indicates progress toward the goal has slowed. Member institutions continue to increase low- and middle-income student enrollment, but other institutions are showing decline, which leads to a minimal overall net gain.

“There are talented, high-achieving low-income students out there,” said Emily Schwartz, program manager at Ithaka S+R and one of the authors of the report. “It’s making sure that institutions are going about socioeconomic diversity in a comprehensive way and piecing together everything under a comprehensive strategy.”

Emily SchwartzEmily Schwartz

The four points suggested in the report are (1) institutional leadership committing to a comprehensive strategy with an investment of resources to support it; (2) expanding beyond traditional pipelines to find these students; (3) prioritizing need-based aid; and (4) ensuring all students have what they need to succeed.

“All of those pieces working cohesively in a comprehensive strategy is a pattern we saw across the institutions that have been the most successful,” said Schwartz. “Institutions are facing competing priorities on their campuses. To best counter those challenges, which includes [lack of sufficient] state funding, we think this comprehensive approach stands out.”

The report includes a diverse range of institutions, including public and private as well as PWIs and MSIs.

“We want the full ATI-eligible population—320 institutions—to be able to look at the examples that we share and see an institution that they consider to be a peer and to be inspired by the great work many of our members are doing and hopefully do some of that great work on their campuses as well,” said Schwartz.

The report details some of the top performing institutions. George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, added 1,125 Pell Grant recipients from 2015–16 to 2018–19. The percentage of Pell Grant recipients in the student population is 31%.

A significant component of that success is GMU’s longstanding relationship with Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). In fall 2018, GMU created ADVANCE, a seamless joint admission program.

“We were committed to making a good transfer pathway stronger and removing the obstacles so more students could make it over the hurdles and complete their four-year degrees,” said Dr. Michelle Marks, vice president for academic innovation & new ventures at GMU. Admissions and financial aid processes have been streamlined to take ADVANCE students through a single administrative process.

Dr. Michelle MarksDr. Michelle Marks

“We’re able to not only guarantee that all credits count and will transfer, but they’ll transfer productively in majors,” said Marks. “Students in ADVANCE select their major at the front end of their education, and a coach helps them define an educational pathway that ensures that there’s 100% credit transfer.”

While attending NOVA, students have access to the GMU campus. Each ADVANCE student has a dedicated success coach. This person is a student’s primary point of contact and provides the student with personalized support and guidance. Marks said more than 1,000 racially and socioeconomically diverse students are already in the program. Many are first generation postsecondary students.

Expanding opportunities has a benefit for a campus and graduating a diverse range of talented, well educated people is beneficial to the economy and society, the report notes.

“We’re working hard to bring employers into the pipeline,” said Marks. “Employers have provided significant scholarship dollars and experiential learning opportunities, including internships, capstones, apprenticeships and project-based learning. …They’re interested in not only growing a strong talent pipeline, but they recognize the value of a diverse talent pipeline.”

The report also indicates that military veterans can help increase socioeconomic diversity. Schwartz said their presence on campus would enrich the experience of all students, and that is an important pipeline for institutions to consider.

The report notes that the institutions showing consistent increases in enrollment of low- and middle-income students employ multiple strategies and put resources behind the efforts to recruit, retain and graduate those students.

“We know that growing financial aid resources is an important step that institutions need to be paying attention to, for that reason state funding is really important,” said Schwartz. “We do have counter-examples of institutions that have seen a lot of success even with declining state funding.”

To meet the enrollment goal and effectively serve low- and middle-income students, institutional leadership must commit to the necessary work on their campuses, said Schwartz. Every institution that joins ATI, its president signs a commitment. ATI provides research, data analysis, success strategies and membership meetings at which best practices are shared.

Marks said GMU has long shared best practices with other institutions in Virginia. She looks forward to engaging with other ATI members.

“There are regular meetings of the presidents and the academic affairs and the student life leadership among the institutions in Virginia, not just the four-year institutions, but the community college institutions as well,” said Marks, who added that GMU also has a collaborative program with K–12.

“It’s important for these leaders to back up their commitment with actions, such as speaking publicly about the importance of socioeconomic diversity,” said Schwartz. “Leader-to-leader conversations are also really important.”

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