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Access to College Means Access To Economic Mobility for America’s Underserved

Access to College Means Access To Economic Mobility for America’s Underserved

At Baruch College, we use the phrase “the American Dream” a great deal. Indeed, as one of the most diverse institutions of higher education in the country — 70 percent of the student body was born outside of the United States — it is easy to see why “the American Dream” is alive and well here. But what exactly is the American Dream today? How does it work, and what does it mean?

At the heart of the American Dream is economic mobility. It is the belief that the children of poverty and of privilege can end up in the same place; that as long as there is equality of opportunity, one’s starting point in life does not have to be a permanent barrier.

But recent studies indicate that economic mobility may be declining, and the
ability of individuals from underserved backgrounds to rise economically is at serious risk. In fact, the discussion within academia is evolving from racial and gender diversity to socioeconomic diversity, with data showing that economic success in this nation is becoming heavily reliant on one’s ability to afford a college education.

It is no surprise that those with college degrees are more likely to have higher incomes than those who do not. According to the 2002 U.S. Census, “students with a bachelor’s degree can, on average, expect to earn $2.1 million in their lifetimes — at least $900,000 more than those who did not attend college.”

Higher education professionals would be seriously remiss if we believed there is nothing we can do to change this situation. And actions are being taken. I applaud the efforts of Princeton, Emory, Harvard and other private universities to improve access for financially needy students, but the reality is that the vast majority of students completing undergraduate degrees attend public universities. For those of us at institutions that represent the majority, the focus must be on tuition costs, the quality of the educational experience and graduation rates.

First off, tuition needs to be kept affordable at public universities because tuition equals access even in the “affordable” public sector. Over the past decade, tuition rose 47 percent at public, four-year colleges and 42 percent at their private counterparts, according to the College Board. Adding to the burden is the substantial decline of state appropriations for higher education. Forced to take more loans and work longer hours to make ends meet, the children of the working class are finding that a college education is becoming more a test of their endurance than their intelligence.

Once these persistent and deserving students arrive on our campuses, we need to ensure that they find the academic experience and services that meet their particular needs. At Baruch, we are seeing strong evidence of how specific actions have positively impacted the success of our student body.

With students often having to hold jobs, its important that weekend, evening, summer and winter intersession classes are available so they can earn the credits they need. Also, academic difficulty needs to be addressed immediately. Shared learning communities of small groups of students with intensive faculty involvement help improve student satisfaction and achievement, retention, and, ultimately, graduation rates.

Many students who are the first in their families to pursue a college degree lack contact with professionals and may not have the necessary understanding of the world they aspire to enter. Students need to be well informed about the array of career and life paths available to them. Career seminars, effective career counseling and solid professional networks are critical, as are high-value internships and exposure to individuals in their fields of interest. Baruch, for example, has developed a series of co-curricular programs through its Starr Career Development Center to meet those goals. The programs counsel and explicitly groom students for graduate school, law school, and management training programs in government and at some of the top companies in the country.

In addition to an excellent academic education, universities cannot neglect the social skills that impact success. Programs to help students hone presentation skills, become confident speakers and understand the “unwritten rules” of the work place should become more of a priority so that traditionally underserved students can compete more favorably for the best jobs.

In the United States of the 21st century, individuals without a college degree will experience diminished economic opportunity, and the country will pay the price for their undeveloped potential. As educators, we must make every effort to ensure equitable access to higher education as well as access to other tangibles, such as quality internships and career development preparation. We need to consistently remind policy makers that the most important thing this country can do in the next 20 years is help as many qualified people attend and graduate from college as possible.

— Dr. Kathleen Waldron is president of Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system.

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