Higher education leaders hear the rumbling – the steady complaints that college is too expensive, and that even for those who manage to find funding, too many fail to graduate.
In response, the heads of 19 state university systems are joining to make sure their policies match their rhetoric about more diversity and better learning. At stake, say policymakers, business leaders, and academics, are America's competitiveness, and its ability to deal with the costs of an aging baby-boomer population.
The National Association of System Heads (NASH) announced the launch of the Access to Success Initiative Oct. 31. Its main goal is to improve college attendance and completion for low-income and minority students – and to close the gaps between them and other students in half or more by 2015. The 19 systems – from Maryland to California – will start collecting new sets of data to gauge progress.
"They're going to publish this information ... so they can have an honest dialogue and make good on that public commitment to transparency," says Ross Wiener, a vice president at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that designed the tracking system with NASH. The initiative is backed by the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This new level of leadership reflects a growing concern that the low percentage of college degrees among some segments of US society holds back not only individuals, but the nation as a whole.
Demographic projections for K-12 education show a steady rise in the numbers of low-income and minority students, many of whom would be the first in their family to attend college. "Every year it gets more clear that ... the students we need to do best by ... are the students that we've done worst by in the past," says William Doyle, assistant professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
There's also a fairness issue, some say. "Capable students should not be denied a higher education simply because of their income status," says Tom Meredith, NASH president.
Only 36 percent of college-qualified low-income students complete bachelor's degrees within 8-1/2 years, compared with 81 percent of high-income students, according to last year's report by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. And while state funding for merit-based scholarships has grown 300 percent in the past 30 years, need-based aid has grown only 70 percent in the same period, The Education Trust reports.
Redirecting financial aid toward those who need it most is high on the Access to Success agenda. Participants have also formed a working group to try to bring college costs under control.
Because public universities alone can't reform education, many of them plan to form deeper connections with K-12 systems as well. Some are working to boost teacher development so that fewer students will be taught by those who lack expertise in their subjects.
Public colleges are finding that open access isn't enough, says Professor Doyle: Students are often admitted based on minimum standards, but then face "really tough standards ... when they take the placement exams." If they have to take remedial courses, or if they don't do well in "gatekeeper" courses, many drop out. Now, many are considering revamping introductory courses and improving advising.
As president of the University of Louisiana System (one of the 19 participants), Sally Clausen wants to leave a legacy of a changed culture in education. The Katrina disaster, in which she observed that many poor and undereducated people had trouble accessing support systems, "was a turning point for all of us [in education]," she says. Instead of perhaps believing that when students drop out of college, it's their own problem, "now we're taking the attitude that ... it is our obligation to ensure that barriers are removed, that advising is real and personal, that courses are available, that tutors are available."
Ms. Clausen cites a 2006 report that estimated that if racial minorities had the same educational attainment and earnings as whites, personal income in Louisiana would be $4.6 billion higher. "But it's more than that," she says. "We have a democracy in this country that purports to provide for all, and we are just not doing that as well for our underrepresented students."
Currently only about 40 percent of students in her system graduate within six years. But in 2004, her universities set a goal to surpass the national graduation rate by 2012. "We're treating all of our students as we have treated honors students and athletes – we want to track them and understand what their needs are," Clausen says.
Future downturns in higher-ed funding are a potential roadblock, says Mr. Meredith of NASH. But he is hopeful that the commitment will hold because so many state systems have joined together on it. The 19 systems enroll more than 2 million undergrads, including about one-third of the low-income and minority students at four-year public institutions, according to Education Trust.