By Julie Bachur Gopalan and Allison Wallace, CollegeSpring*
Increasing the educational and professional prospects of low-income students is one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time. The Lumina Foundation estimates that over two-thirds of all U.S. jobs will require a postsecondary degree by 2018. Yet, only 9% of students in the bottom income quartile will earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are twenty-four, compared to 77% of students in the top income quartile. Without a four-year degree, low-income students’ professional prospects are dramatically curtailed, which in turn prevents our nation from meeting the growing demand for highly-skilled workers.
Equipping all students to succeed in college and beyond is imperative to create an equal opportunity society. Achieving this goal, however, requires concerted action across sectors. Rising tuition costs, shrinking federal aid, and a lack of college readiness information are major factors limiting underrepresented students’ prospects. College success organizations can help educate students on their postsecondary options and steer them toward best-fit colleges, but this work also needs to be accompanied by institutional and policy reform. High schools, nonprofits, colleges, and the federal government need to act deliberately—and act together—in order to change low-income students’ educational and economic outcomes for the long-term.
One major obstruction in the path to college is the increasing cost. Across the country, college tuition is skyrocketing, forcing low-income Pell Grant recipients to borrow in higher amounts than their wealthier peers. The Pell Grant, born out of the reauthorization of The Higher Education Act of 1965, was created to defray college costs for low-income students. While the grant supported 70% of college costs in 1980, today it covers less than one-third of costs at four-year public institutions. Additionally, the House Budget Committee is planning to limit the amount of aid available by freezing the Pell Grant maximum over the next few years.
Although the fate of the Pell Grant remains uncertain, the government has taken tangible steps toward making the college application and financial aid process more transparent. The Financial Aid and Transparency Act of 2015 (S.B. 108) aims to more easily award Pell Grants to eligible students. The Obama administration is also working to streamline the FAFSA, by making the online application shorter with “skip questions” and by using IRS tax data. In September, the White House unveiled the College Scorecard, an online platform that helps students and their families calculate their financial aid and research affordable colleges with high graduation rates.
While these transparency initiatives represent a concerted effort by the government to better educate students on postsecondary options, they sidestep the issue of accountability. The current system ultimately places the onus on families, schools, and college success organizations to guide students to institutions where they are likely to graduate on time with a manageable debt burden. There is currently no corresponding accountability structure to ensure that colleges and universities are actively supporting the academic and financial success of low-income, first-generation college-goers. If the government is not investing sufficiently in the Pell Grant, and higher education institutions are not held accountable, how can we bring about systemic change in higher education?
Without federal and institutional action, college success organizations alone are unlikely to generate national change in the higher education landscape. At CollegeSpring, we have witnessed the profound impact we have had on the lives of the individual students we have served. Steering students toward “match” institutions—competitive colleges with high graduation rates and robust academic and financial resources—not only increases students’ chances of graduation, but also improves their professional and economic outcomes. However, schools and college success organizations guiding students to “match” colleges is not enough.
A coordinated, three-pronged solution is required: 1) college success organizations, families, and high schools must guide students to “match” colleges; 2) the federal government must increase the Pell Grant award to ensure that low-income students can attend high-quality institutions without being crippled by student debt; and 3) higher education institutions must be held accountable for better supporting the financial, academic, and socioemotional needs of low-income, first-generation college-goers as they transition to and through college.
As allies in helping students attain college success, we all share the responsibility of closing the opportunity gap. Making the college application process more transparent and democratizing resources so that students can make more informed decisions about their postsecondary plans is important, but it alone cannot solve the higher education crisis. Collaboration across sectors is required to generate reform and ensure that all students realize their full educational potential.
* At CollegeSpring, Julie Bachur Gopalan serves as its Senior Vice President of Strategy & Impact and Allison Wallace serves as its Development & Communications Coordinator. Founded in 2008, CollegeSpring is a non-profit organization providing instruction and mentoring that has assisted more than 11,000 students to improve their SAT scores by over 180 points on average.