Colleges Can Do a Lot for Social Mobility Right Now

In the two weeks since the Supreme Court rejected affirmative action in college admissions, there’s been a lot of talk about the racial makeup of elite institutions like Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the respondents in the case. And yes, the makeup of the student bodies at the most selective schools matters: Graduates of these institutions often have a certain level of access at the highest levels of business and government — the justices themselves are evidence of that. But the vast majority of American college students don’t attend these elite schools, and the rise of lower-income and nonwhite students in the undergraduate ranks has been “most pronounced in public two-year colleges and the least selective four-year colleges and universities.”

Part of the puzzle, then, in addition to figuring out what comes after affirmative action, is revisiting a question akin to one that Times Opinion asked last year in the context of K-12 schools which applies to all prospective college students: What is college for?

Is it a finishing school for the elite? Is it for inspiring intellectual inquiry and fostering critical thinking? Is it an engine of social mobility?

Some might say that it’s all three, but I want to focus on the last one, because the question of social mobility drives so many of our public policy discussions and is also a key factor in how students and their families decide what they want to get out of their investment in higher education. And there’s actually a great deal we can do right now to help more current and prospective college students establish a solid middle-class or upper-middle-class footing.

Taking some of these steps is particularly urgent because many students lost ground during Covid school closures and may face additional challenges and need additional support to get to — and through — college. As Josh Wyner, the founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, told me, “Community colleges and four-year colleges are accepting students today who will start their education with lower levels of literacy and numeracy than just four years ago.”

Additionally, though the pandemic-era decline in college enrollment has eased, there are still over a million fewer college students this spring than there were in 2019. As Katharine Meyer, a fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, has written: “Overall enrollment is down, especially at community colleges. Undergraduate completion fell for the first time in 10 years. There are more ‘stopped out’ students — students who left college with some credits but no degree. Fewer students are transferring from two-year to four-year institutions.” Because of demographic shifts and a declining birthrate in the United States, some colleges will need new strategies to simply keep their doors open.

When it comes to higher education, then, where Americans want to be headed involves coming up with strategies to address several issues that are layered on top of one another. Here are three policy areas that deserve more attention and that, if we figure out which way we want to go, could help more young people finish college and propel them into careers that allow them and their families to thrive.

Restore Funding That Was Cut After the Great Recession

It sounds obvious, but if we want a more effective system of higher education, that requires money. A 2019 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities painted a pretty bleak picture of the post-Great Recession college landscape: Though some of the funding has returned from its low point during the recession, “Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $6.6 billion below what it was in 2008 just before the Great Recession fully took hold, after adjusting for inflation.”

The pandemic didn’t make things any better. According to analysis from the National Education Association, “In 2020, it looked like things were slowly improving, but then the pandemic hit. State appropriations fell again in 2021 and 2022.” Across the country, the N.E.A. found that “32 states spent less on public colleges and universities in 2020 than in 2008, with an average decline of nearly $1,500 per student.”

The result is that states pushed the cost of attending college onto students and their families, and research has shown that tuition increases at less selective schools have a negative effect on the diversity of those schools. If states just maintain, in the aggregate, current levels of funding for higher education, Meyer told me, it would be helpful in maintaining staffing at public colleges.

Offer Students Clear Courses of Study

In a strong labor market like the one we have now — the official unemployment rate is 3.6 percent — students from lower income backgrounds need to have confidence that college offers a solid return on investment because the opportunity cost of not going to work straight out of high school can be high. Many prospective college students have families of their own to support, and some can’t afford to risk immediate earning potential in favor of longer-term goals.

Wyner told me that in many cases, students are paying for and taking more credits than they need to graduate, which wastes time and money. “One thing that colleges can do,” Wyner said, “is create really clear programs of study with really clear course sequences and then train their advisers to help students figure out what they’re interested in, choose a program of study and stay on that program of study all the way through to graduation.”

Ideally, this advising starts in high school. Wyner gave me the example of Imperial Valley College, which was awarded $500,000 by the Aspen Institute this year for community college excellence, in particular for its work serving a rural area “with high rates of poverty and low rates of educational attainment.” Wyner told me that Imperial Valley sent advisers into local schools to help students take community college classes while still attending high school, and also to help them “create a plan for the degree that they want to pursue before they ever get to college.”

Lennor Johnson, the college’s president, told EdSource’s Michael Burke that his school is trying to create a “college-going culture” in the community by having a strong relationship with local high schools and getting more high school students to earn community college credits before they even graduate. “Because we know that in an impoverished community, it’s hard,” Johnson said. “So we come out to them and walk them through the process, so by the time they graduate from high school, they already know that this is a potential destination for them.” Johnson said he also wants to make sure families are aware that his college costs only $46 per unit, and that many students can get those low costs waived.

There’s another gap between community college and four-year institutions, and we need to make sure that pipeline is secure. In a piece for The Hechinger Report, Wyner highlights: “a partnership between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University. By enrolling new students at both institutions simultaneously, this large community college and top research university report that they are helping 3,000 students each year get on the path to a low-cost, high-quality bachelor’s degree — the most certain route to a well-paying job in Northern Virginia.”

Highlight Programs With the Highest R.O.I.

In 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce published a report called “Buyer Beware: First-Year Earnings and Debt for 37,000 College Majors at 4,400 Institutions.” The first paragraph alone is quite instructive about the many details within:

The report has a companion online tool that allows you to look up specific majors and schools and see what the earnings-to-debt ratio could be for potential students. There’s another accompanying tool with which you can assess the long-term “net present value” for 4,500 colleges projected over intervals up to 40 years. It defines net present value as “how much a sum of money in the future is valued today. This metric includes costs, future earnings, and the length of time it would take to invest and earn a specific amount of money over a fixed horizon.” In 2021, the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way published a report with a list of majors with the highest and lowest R.O.I.

Clearly, these suggestions won’t help everyone get good jobs, as they define them, or jobs that fulfill them — not everyone wants to be a nurse or a power transmission installer, and there is a lot of work that top-drawer employers need to do to look beyond postsecondary credentials as markers of brilliance, capability and dedication in potential employees. I don’t think people should have to go to college if they don’t want to — as Georgetown’s Good Jobs Project points out, there are 30 million good jobs for workers without bachelor’s degrees.

But a sharper focus on these approaches would help many potential college students believe that higher education is both for them and worth their time, energy and sacrifice. There’s evidence that the United States doesn’t have enough college-educated workers, a situation that seems like a missed opportunity for some of those who could attend but might eschew college, and for the country’s long-term economic health.

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