Sharpening Our Focus on Student Success in Higher Education

Sharpening Our Focus on Student Success in Higher Education

This LatestCounsel was written by Terri Taylor, EducationCounsel Legal and Policy Advisor.

This fall, American colleges and universities are opening their doors to 20.2 million students – an increase of about 4.9 million students since fall 2000, including a larger share of adult, African-American, and Hispanic students.  But with low to middling graduation rates nationwide, too many of these students will not reap the benefits that a college credential can offer. The reasons why a student may not complete his or her degree are legion, but many low-income, first generation, and historically underrepresented minority students cite financial concerns, academic preparedness, and a lack of a sense of belonging on campus as contributing factors.

graduationx348The good news is that many institutions and organizations are working to improve the college experience for these students.  Several organizations and institutions are working to help them “match” to the competitive college that best meets their needs and interests.   Others are enhancing efforts to support their transition to and through college, notably including the Posse Foundation (founded in 1989 because of one student who said, “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me”). Many institutions are working to admit richly diverse classes of students and to encourage students to learn from each other both inside and out of the classroom, an effort being explored in more depth through EducationCounsel’s longstanding partnership with the College Board’s Access & Diversity Collaborative.  And media and advocacy organizations are starting to share these students’ stories, including a new series by DC’s own WAMU: The First-Generation College Experience.

Higher education has also become a hot topic in policy circles, with presidential candidates, the Administration, and Congress all weighing in.  Proposals to make college more affordable, improve access financial assistance, and enhance accountability for colleges and universities have been put forward.  Importantly, many federal policy conversations are moving away from a long-standing exclusive focus on college access to include additional attention to college completion.

This is a positive shift – but it is important for policymakers, advocates, and other stakeholders not to lose sight of the perspectives of students and those closest to them in college.  Keeping traditionally underserved students in mind is especially important.  A few questions to consider:

  • What groups of students will a policy likely benefit?  Has specific attention been paid to the impact on all groups ?
  • Do changes speak to challenges that students often describe – not enough financial support, not enough academic support, and feelings of exclusion by campus culture or climate?
  • Do changes encourage colleges and universities to support students more effectively?

Federal policy won’t be a silver bullet, but it can create important foundations for improved outcomes for all students.  After all, for the vast majority of Americans, it has never been more important to earn a college credential to succeed in the workforce and beyond.  And, to reach our ambitious goals for increasing college completion and attainment, we must serve our low income, first generation, and traditionally underrepresented students better.

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