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Diverse Conversations: Are Colleges Doing Enough to Close the Achievement Gap?

020916_achievementThere’s a lot of talk in P-12 learning about how exactly to best close the achievement gap or the space that separates traditionally advantaged students with those who have historically been at-risk where academics are concerned. By the time students get to college, the emphasis shifts slightly to focus more on the diversity of who is on a university campus and less on outcomes. Without the stringent assessments that are now synonymous with the P-12 process, colleges have an easier time simply making appearances when it comes to the true success of all students on their campuses.

This isn’t to say that there is no accountability—several independent associations and often the colleges themselves release data on graduation rates, post-grad employment rates, and even the amount of debt incurred by students. Yet when it comes to truly closing the achievement gap between students from all life backgrounds, ethnicities and races, P-12 institutions seem to be held to a higher standard than their 13–20 counterparts. This is not only a disservice to the students but to the American population as a whole that then misses out on enjoying the innovation, advancement and prosperity that comes with a more highly educated public.

So how can colleges step up their game when it comes to closing the achievement gap?

What’s working

It’s only been in the last decade or so that colleges have begun to recognize that different students need different guidance to reach that graduation podium. It’s why a crop of programs designed for first-generation and minority college students are flourishing across the country. These initiatives run the gamut—from recruiting these students, to providing intense mentorship programs, to partnering with community businesses for job placement. Targeting the guidance of students based on their backgrounds is vital to getting them their degrees, and all of this conscientious hard work by universities is certainly making a dent when it comes to higher achievement from traditionally at-risk college students.

Overall, colleges are doing a better job in recent years of providing a full career arc before students set foot on campus. This gives them an idea of what to expect when it comes to the courses they will take, the mentorship programs available, the potential for internships, and the job placement initiatives. For students who are putting their working lives on hold to obtain a college degree, a greater understanding of what that means in long-term financial terms is necessary to convince them the leap to college life is a good one.

What needs work

For all of the strides college recruiting programs have made, there is still an overarching theme that recruiting new students is an isolated process. Get the kids on campus, then move on to the next batch. In reality, recruiting should be a very small part of a larger strategy that not only brings students of varied backgrounds to campus but also sustains them until graduation. Some schools are improving in this regard, but there’s still a lot of work needed to flip this mentality from one of solitude to solidarity with other student help groups.

The need for an affordable college education is mentioned so often that it seems that we are all becoming desensitized to it. The reality is that having affordable college, not just providing loans to students, will go a long way toward helping close the achievement gap. Initiatives like providing the first two years of community college for free to qualifying students, and even student loan forgiveness programs for high-demand jobs, are a few ways that the dream of a college degree can become more accessible to minority, first-generation and other at-risk students.

There’s a reason so much attention is paid to closing the achievement gap in P-12 classrooms: a better educated public means a stronger economy, greater industry competition on a global scale, and an overall better quality of life for all citizens. It is high time colleges stepped back from their diversity plans long enough to question whether those efforts are truly doing enough to close the country’s achievement gap for life. Continued targeted guidance throughout the college process, improved recruiting, and a bigger push for affordable college are a few ways that the U.S. college and university landscape can step up its efforts for equality in higher education achievement.

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