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Education Opinion

3 Ways to Make Higher Education More Equitable

By Guest Blogger — August 15, 2018 6 min read
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This week’s guest blog features Rich Buery, KIPP‘s chief of policy and public affairs. In this role, Rich leads efforts to grow the KIPP network and speaks for KIPP on policy issues. He previously served as deputy mayor in New York City under Bill de Blasio, where he led key initiatives like Pre-K for All. This week, Rich will write about KIPP’s work on higher education and other critical policy issues.

KIPP is dedicated to making sure each of our students has the opportunity to go to college and lead a choice-filled life. With more than 12,000 KIPP alumni in college today, we are dedicated to sharing what we were are learning from our alumni—both in college and the workforce—and to advocating for policies that will enable young people from low-income families to reach their full potential.

On Monday, I wrote about why it is critical to help students find the right college match. Today, I will explore three other areas where higher education needs to increase its performance: informational transparency, student financial support, and innovation.

Information is Essential

In our Match Matters process, KIPP Through College (KTC) counselors share what we know about college graduation rates for African American and Latino students, but the statistics are hard to access. You can shop for a car online and get all the information you need to make the right decision. Why should this crucial data about college outcomes be any different?

The federal government, in partnership with states, can do more to increase transparency and enhance market accountability in higher education by ensuring that critical data about college completion rates, post-college employment and earnings, and debt-repayment rates are readily available so that students and families can make informed choices about a college.

For LaRoi Thompson, a member of the KIPP NYC class of 2018, informational transparency was key. LaRoi was a strong student interested in math and psychology. Initially, he was looking at colleges that he would easily be accepted to, based on his grades. But many of these schools had low graduation rates. His KTC counselors shared information about the early decision process and how it could open doors to private and out-of-state colleges with much higher estimated completion rates than those he’d been looking at. Thanks to their advice, LaRoi is heading to Gettysburg College in the fall, with the financial aid he needs to stay and the academic environment that will help him meet his goals.

Data transparency enables both students and colleges to make good decisions. With better data about who graduates and why, colleges could begin to use predictive analytics to identify students at risk of dropping out, and to provide intensive supports to help them stay in college. Imagine if a college’s counseling office got a weekly list of the 50 students most at risk of leaving school, based on a variety of data points, and then invested in intervening with those students before—rather than after—things reached a crisis point.

Financial Support is Critical

Unsurprisingly, KIPP’s experience following our graduates into college shows that the availability of Pell grants, work study, and other streams of aid can be decisive in whether they graduate. The vast majority of KIPP’s 12,000 alums currently in college count on Pell grants of about $6,000, and work study of around $1,700. Even with this critical financial aid, annual tuition can easily exceed $25,000 with housing, food, books, and other expenses.

We will continue to advocate for increases in Pell, work study, and financial aid. The maximum 2017-18 Pell grant paid for just under 30 percent of the cost of room, board, fees, and tuition at a public four-year in-state college. Work study is critical, but often students aren’t able to earn the amount they need. We should also continue to test ideas such as income-based repayment plans for college loans, under which students pay colleges a portion of future earnings rather than upfront tuition.

Financial support meant the difference between graduating and dropping out for Joe Magana, an alumnus of KIPP LA Prep Middle School in Los Angeles. By the end of high school, Joe was the sole financial supporter for his family. He started off at Whittier Collegea selective liberal arts college that was a good fit for him—but he eventually had to drop out to prioritize working. He took classes at a local community college to stay academically engaged, but he wasn’t getting the experience he deserved. He connected with his KTC counselor, who helped him find a scholarship that allowed him to re-enroll at Whittier. He has since graduated and taken a job at an educational nonprofit.

Innovation is Key

Even with best practices around college match, informational transparency, and financial support, we know we don’t yet have all the answers. The challenge of helping more students make it to and through college calls for bold innovation. For example, an organization called Braven helps jumpstart students’ professional success by improving the connection between college and career. Its programs can fit with the schedule of nontraditional students, including those working full-time and those with children. Braven partners with companies like Prudential, Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn for real-world mentorship, connections, and support. The effect is striking: 98 percent of Braven alumni are persisting in or have graduated from college.

We might also think about the way small innovations can make a big impact—for instance, the concept of “nudges” around important steps in the college-going process, like filing FAFSA forms. The small act of a text or an email from a college counselor could be the difference between a young person getting the financial aid they need and missing out.

Some colleges innovate to help students clear financial obstacles to graduation with financial support through completion grants or “micro grants.” These grants can provide support for students who are on track toward graduation, but have a small amount of unmet need that will otherwise prevent them from continuing. These grants—sometimes just hundreds of dollars—can revolutionize a student’s likelihood of graduating and a college’s persistence rate overall.

We’re also seeing colleges band together to innovate as one. The University Innovation Alliance, for instance, is a collaborative of 11 public universities committed to increasing the number of low-income Americans, first-generation students, and people of color who earn college degrees. Groups like theirs are driving transformative change. I’d love to hear about promising practices that are making a difference for young people in your community.

Helping young people build a successful pathway to higher education is central to our values as Americans. It’s also central to our economic future. America’s broad investment in secondary and higher education for the many—and not the privileged few—was the driving force behind America’s 20th-century economic expansion. It’s time to double down on that investment.

And while getting more young people to and through college—by itself—will not solve all of our country’s problems, getting more people into the right college can certainly be a part of the solution. By focusing on college match, information, affordability, and innovation, we can move America forward.

Rich Buery

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.