(Photography by Matthew Gilson)

Expanding college access

How can schools prepare low-income students for success in college?

Scholarships can alter the course of a student’s life—something South Side native Harriet Heyman, AM’72, and her husband, Sir Michael Moritz, know to be true.

In announcing a $50 million gift and challenge supporting the University’s Odyssey Scholarship and Collegiate Scholars Programs, Moritz reflected on the life-changing impact of “a wonderful scholarship from people who, at that point, I didn’t know.”

Financial support for low-income students is just one part of the equation, as dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, pointed out at the event. Students need what he described as “a holistic system of support and encouragement” that begins during the admissions process and continues after graduation.

Following the announcement, a panel of alumni experts in education discussed what else students from underserved backgrounds need to gain admission to and thrive in college: former US secretary of education Arne Duncan, LAB’82; Chicago Public Schools chief of school strategy and planning Elizabeth Kirby, AM’00; and Syracuse University education professor Vincent Tinto, PhD’71.

Moderator Sara Ray Stoelinga, AB’95, AM’01, PhD’04, the Sara Liston Spurlark Director of the Urban Education Institute, began the conversation by asking panelists what they saw as the biggest barriers to better college access. (Their comments have been condensed and edited; full video is available at https://youtu.be/zmGkQvwHst8.)

Arne Duncan: What we see is that talent is so much more evenly distributed than opportunity. What kills me is there are so many young men and women who live 10 blocks from here who’ve never been on campus, will never have these kinds of opportunities until we are serious about providing opportunity to everybody, to every community.

The good news is over the past 20 years the number of black and Hispanic college graduates has almost doubled. The reality check is Hispanic college completion rates have doubled from 8 percent to 15 percent. And the question I ask folks is, do we want to stand here in 2035 and say we are heroes because now 30 percent of Hispanics have graduated from college? What we need, which the University and others are working so hard on, is a vision for exponential increases in opportunity.

Elizabeth Kirby: In the city of Chicago, we have done a lot of great work around getting students ready to graduate from high school. But now our focus really is shifting to “Bs or better” work. The research shows that the higher the grade point average, the higher the college retention and completion rates. Currently, one in four eighth graders are leaving their schools ready for success in high school and ultimately for college completion. We are woefully behind where we need to be.

Vincent Tinto: It’s pretty clear that access without support is not real opportunity. While we’re able to provide access to many low-income, underrepresented students, unless you provide them adequate support, it doesn’t translate to real opportunity to graduate. Take, for example, academic skills. Among students who graduate high school with more than adequate skills for college—those at the top of their classes—nearly 85 percent will graduate on time. Among those who are least well prepared, it’s at best no more than 20 percent. That’s simply unacceptable. Colleges, especially two-year colleges, struggle with providing sufficient academic support to students whose academic skills need help. Institutions don’t have resources, human or financial, to address these issues at scale.

Sara Ray Stoelinga: I think it’s important for us to understand the challenges, but also to celebrate the successes and gains that we’ve seen in college access and attainment for disadvantaged students. What have we done well?

EK: If you look at the four-year college enrollment rate in Chicago Public Schools in 2006, it was about 31 percent. And the national rate was about 41 percent, 42 percent. In 2013 the CPS rate grew to 42 percent.

The district is aggressively focusing resources and structures in order to move this needle. Our goal is beyond students completing high school. Our goal is students attaining a college degree. And so there are structures that we have in place that really push this. We’ve increased the number of students that have access to programs like IB [International Baccalaureate] and AP [Advanced Placement], early college credit attainment. Even if students don’t necessarily score high on AP tests, just that exposure really helps them to be more prepared.

We’ve also added an accountability measure to high schools. Part of the rating for schools is the number of students that enroll in college—and not only enroll in college but remain in school. Schools are also rated based upon the number of students that have exposure to early college courses.

AD: We worked hard to simplify the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] form. The form itself was a huge barrier to entry. It went from about an hour and a half on average to about 28, 29 minutes to complete.

We were able to get an additional $40 billion for Pell Grants. We stopped subsidizing banks to make loans. We made loans ourselves. That was wildly controversial in Washington. We thought it was common sense. We went from six million Pell recipients to nine million, a 50 percent increase, many for the minority community, many first generation.

SRS: Once students land on campus, what are the key levers, Vince, to keep them there?

VT: One thing that we haven’t yet talked about fully is the role of the classroom in student retention and learning. The fact is, most low-income students work. And that means they often come to the campus, go to class, and when class is over, they leave, take care of their families, do work. And if they’re not being engaged and supported in the classroom, it’s very hard for them to succeed in any way. We have to recognize that our faculty in higher education are key players in this initiative. We in academic work are the only faculty from elementary school to high school who are literally not trained to teach our own students. And I want to argue that must change. We must ensure that all our faculty are given the opportunity to develop the skills they need to help their students learn. If we don’t do that, we still haven’t really addressed the problem.

AD: We at the federal level are a huge part of the problem, frankly. We fund higher education through all of your generosity as taxpayers at $150 billion each year in grants and loans. But our money going to higher ed is based upon inputs. It’s based upon enrollment. It’s not based upon outcomes.

We should be incentivizing universities to take more African American and Native American and Latino students. We should be incentivizing them to take more first-generation college goers and more Pell Grant recipients—and not just to accept them, but to provide the support to help them cross that stage four or five years later. The fact that we don’t provide any financial incentives for good behavior and we don’t take money away from universities that show very little interest and commitment to completion—we are a huge part of the problem.

SRS: For all of us working in this field, there are a lot of challenges, especially right now in the state of Illinois and in our city. But what are some reasons to be hopeful in your work?

VT: We have now a number of examples of institutions that have made a difference. We have examples that people can learn from. It’s not just a matter of research literature or opinion articles. I think we as a society are increasingly clear that we can no longer tolerate this continuing and expanding divide that undermines our future as a society.