College and the American dream: a panel discussion

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog, originally posted on the Education Writers Association’s website, is based on a panel discussion from EWA’s annual national seminar, held this May in Los Angeles.)

Pace University is a medium-sized private college in New York with a sticker price of $66,000. California State University, Northridge serves more than three times as many students (41,000) and has a sticker price for Californians less than a third of Pace’s ($21,000).

Yet these two vastly different-seeming colleges both rank among the very best in the nation for giving lots of educational opportunities to low-income students and helping them graduate into good-paying jobs, according to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project.

The surprising commonalities that make these schools engines of the American Dream were explored at the 2018 Education Writers Association’s annual conference.

Creating opportunities

Despite their surface differences, both schools serve similar types of students.

More than half of Pace’s 13,000 students are first-generation enrollees. About half of them are students of color, and two-fifths have family incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell grants, explained Pace president Marvin Krislov.

Likewise, more than half of Cal State Northridge’s 40,000 students are Pell eligible, and the demographics are diverse. “There is no majority on campus,” said university President Dianne Harrison.

Facing financial aid challenges

While Pace awards 95 percent of incoming students grants averaging about $26,000, funding the remaining net cost of about $40,000 a year can be “very overwhelming,”  Krislov said during the EWA panel. Most Pace students also get federal, state or private scholarships and take out federal student loans to help defray their costs, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.

Most CSU Northridge also get grants, and they reduce the average annual net price paid by students down to just about $6,000, according to the Education Department. But Harrison said the paperwork students have to fill out to get those awards, such as the federal government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is cumbersome and intimidating.

“Get rid of FAFSA,” she said. “Find something else. … It really is an impediment.”

Providing a flexible student experience

The traditional college model, the four-year resident student experience,  doesn’t necessarily work for students of all ages and all backgrounds. And it’s probably not the way many low-income students or students of color will attend college, the panelists said.

“If you signal that it is the only path for them, you will lose them,” said Allan Golston, the president of the United States program of the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, during the panel.

For example,  it takes a “fair amount of work” for Pace to help transfer applicants – especially those coming from community colleges – analyze the applicant’s previous courses to see how many Pace credits they should receive, Krislov said.

Universities also need to help navigate students through the remediation process and into for-credit work as quickly as possible to keep college affordable. If students are forced to spend semesters — and spend their precious Pell grant dollars — on non-credit remedial classes, research has shown they are more apt to drop out before they can make progress on a degree.

The Cal State University system is getting rid of remedial classes this year, Harrison said. But the university’s president cautioned that she isn’t completely sure how that transition will work for students who need extra help in math, but hope to pursue a degree in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

Connecting a college degree to work

At Pace, students receive extensive counseling about the job market, Krislov noted, and that goes for humanities majors as well.

“From the very beginning, we have that discussion with students,” Krislov said.

Still, Krislov and Harrison cautioned against creating a college curriculum that is so career-oriented that it squeezes out the humanities. In a country where the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs hold a liberal arts degree, it would be “extremely short-sighted” to jettison the humanities, Harrison said.

“That is not the education that the United States became world famous for,” she said.

Focusing on the future

Serving low-income students or students of color – who will soon make up the majority of new high school graduates – requires a change in the college education model and a change in the mindset of college leaders, the panelists said.

Colleges need to tailor their offerings to the academic, financial and career needs of the current student body.

And college administrators and faculty members need to buy in to a student-centric mission, even if it comes at the expense of a research mission, Krislov said.

Pace’s research portfolio is limited, and Krislov said he wonders if faculty at “high-falutin’” research institutions will be willing to rethink their priorities, and serve a student body that reflects the nation’s changing demographics.

“My message would be, get on board and figure it out,” he said.

That might not be easy for the many universities still closely track their average SAT scores, and worry about where they land in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings. A university will never be able to open its process if it is constantly worried about average SAT scores, Harrison said.

Golston observed that selective schools are becoming even more selective, with student aid trending toward merit-based scholarships, instead of need-based scholarships.

He added, “I think we have to grapple with the question, is this what we want for our country?”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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