Three Ways to Renew the American Dream by Improving Higher Education

A college degree is one of the biggest predictors of reaching the middle class, but too few lower-income students earn one. We talk a lot about access, but access isn’t the problem: it’s that too few students ever complete the programs they begin and graduate with a degree. About two-thirds of high school grads enroll in college, almost half of them drop out without a degree.  Among low-income and minority students, dropout rates are even higher.

We need to renew the promise of higher education, and enhance it as an avenue to the middle class. Sawhill explores this issue in a new report from the College Board, Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society.  Here are three recommendations from that essay that could benefit those who need college most:

1. Higher standards for college admission:

Too many students are starting college unprepared to do college-level work. The proportion of high school seniors scoring proficient or higher in 2009 was only 26% in math, and only 38% in reading, according to the NAEP, yet about two-thirds of graduating seniors enrolled in college in the fall. Sending unprepared students to college is unfair to the institutions that have to devote resources to remediation, to the taxpayers who subsidize financial aid for students who aren’t ready to succeed, and to the students and their families who go into debt despite a much reduced likelihood of earning a degree.

2. Better financial aid:

We spend $136 billion a year on federal aid, and too much of it (tax credits and loans) goes to middle class and wealthier families. We can and should reprioritize aid to those who need it most. The money we do spend on those at the low-end of the income scale (Pell Grants) is often not enough to cover tuition, and doesn’t improve student progress. Why not give bigger awards to low-income students, but make them conditional on maintaining a good GPA and making progress toward a degree? If students are adequately prepared for college (see item 1), they’ll be able to use the aid more efficiently.

3. Measure student learning, not credit hours:

The traditional method of using credit hours and grade point averages to assess how much a student has learned was questionable from the get-go, has been worsened by grade inflation, and is downright untenable when the very notion of seat-time is being upended by distance learning and self-paced courses. A New America Foundation report describes the credit hour as a “nonsensical basis for regulating online programs in which the whole notion of time in the classroom has no meaning.” In addition to keeping up with the times, competency-based education could also help motivated students complete degrees more quickly and cheaply, and help employers better evaluate potential employees.

None of these changes will be easy, but each is vitally important if we want to keep the promise of a college education alive for all citizens, not just the well-off.