WASHINGTON – Thirty years ago, one year of tuition, room, and board at a nation’s four-year, degree-granting institution cost $8,756 on average (or $3,499, when adjusted for inflation).
As of 2010, that figure had almost tripled to $22,092 – and that’s just for one year.
To meet this economic hurdle, 39.6 million Americans have turned to the student loan market, taking on more than $1 trillion in debt of last year, according to the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office. Higher education, once a pipeline to the American Dream, is quickly becoming just a pipedream for low-income and underserved Americans.
On Thursday, President and First Lady Obama invited education leaders and decision-makers to the White House to announce an intervention to allow more Americans the chance at a degree. The Expanding Education Opportunity summit aims to foster collaboration and brainstorm solutions to the dearth of college opportunities for low-income and disadvantaged students. The summit is part of the President’s overall education agenda, which has advanced through Congress in fits and starts.
President Obama addressed the attendees and the press, stating, “The one reason we’re here today is we want to make sure more young people have a change to earn a higher education. Today is a great example of how we can advance this agenda without a bunch of new legislation.”
Without a college degree, children born in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution have just a 5 percent chance of getting into the top 20 percent as adults — and only a 55 percent chance of ever making it out of that income bracket, according to a 2008 Brookings Institute study.
But there was a catch: Those invited could only attend the summit if they put their money where their mouths are. Attendees were required to submit (for review) a concise in-house plan of new actions for 2014 to combat the opportunity gap, and publicly commit funds to execute their plan.
“We do not have a more clear ladder of economic mobility than the attainment of a college degree for someone born into a low-income family. And yet the research shows that if you are born in the bottom quartile, by the accident of birth you have only a nine percent chance of graduating from college,” says Director of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling, who organized the summit. “We are a country that does not believe that the outcomes of your life should be overly determined by the accident of your birth. Yet these numbers show that to make good on that, we have to do much more as a country to help more people to succeed in college.”
In preliminary efforts, the Department of Education and stakeholders identified four areas of focus that could have the greatest impact in expanding access to higher education: Matching students to their best possible schools and encouraging completion; increasing the pool of college-ready students; reducing inequalities in college advisement and test prep; and making remediation more effective.
An array of secondary institutions are included in the ongoing initiative, such as MIT, College of the Holy Cross, Princeton University, Vassar College, and Navajo Technical University. HBCUs Howard University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, and Spelman College are also making commitments. Notable organizations involved include the College Board, Posse Foundation, and the American Association of Community Colleges.
Participants were required to focus their plans and resources on improving one or more of these areas. A majority of the schools and organizations involved have made pledges around increasing match and college completion.
The University of Chicago, for example, has pledged $10 million for its College Success Initiative, which will reach 10,000 high schools across the next 10 years. Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts has a program that offers full scholarships for low-income, non-traditional age college students. Scripps College in California will increase its financial aid and scholarship endowment by $35 million over the next five years. Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College will allow incoming freshmen to start remediation before their first semester. College Board is setting up partnerships to waive student application fees.
Morehouse is piloting an alternative to the SAT/ACT. Howard is boosting success among low-income STEM students and matching Pell Grants by 100 percent. Morgan State is expanding its pipelining partnership with the Community College of Baltimore College, as well as an initiative to help students who’ve left the university in good academic standing complete their degrees. And Spelman will continue to fundraise to financially support upperclassmen may not graduate due to the recession.
Absent from the summit is the trouble of ballooning college costs. The omission is deliberate; back in August, the president made college accountability, quality, and affordability his personal undertaking. His plan includes the creation of a College Scorecard (by 2015, which will be based on access, affordability, and outcomes), linking student’s financial aid to their class completion, bolstering technology, and more.
The institutions and organizations involved will reconvene next year, when the White House will evaluate their progress and more entities will be invited to join the strategy.
Before introducing the president at the summit, Mrs. Obama shared her own college experience, painting the story of a first-generation college freshman who didn’t know how to navigate a campus and didn’t see anyone with whom she could identify.
“I didn’t even bring the right sized sheets for my dorm room bed . . . I was a little overwhelmed and a little isolated. But then I had an opportunity to participate in a three-week, on-campus orientation program that helped me get a feel for the rhythm of college life,” she said. “And once school started, I discovered the campus cultural center . . . where I found students and staff who came from families and communities that were similar to my own. They were there to answer the questions I was too embarrassed to ask anyone else. And if it weren’t for those resources and the friends and the mentors, I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through college.”
By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent