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Mind the Gap: Building Bridges Between Higher Education and Its Students

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I always learn from and enjoy the comments made by readers of this blog, print media and through social media like Twitter. One comment struck me this week, in particular, that cast light on a growing and persistent problem within higher education. How do we create a pipeline between higher education sectors to benefit our students?

The reader commented that I was mistaken to say that enrollments were off this academic year, noting that overall enrollment was steady or had increased slightly in several education sectors. This analysis is correct, although what I was saying is that enrollments at many American colleges and universities are off, even if the reviewed sector's numbers are flat or slowing growing.

However we define it, enrollments in higher education are less robust than we would wish even when we take into account the lingering impact of the great recession. Furthermore, patterns are shifting dramatically at least over the mid term away from for-profit and toward two-year institutions over the longer term. The ultimate impacts of these trends are hard to decipher, especially until employers and state and federal education officials make their positions clearer on a growing debate between certificates and degrees.

Part of the problem is how we attract students into American higher education is beginning to change. As one example, private colleges and universities have historically relied upon some combination of glossy brochures, targeted zip codes, specialty categories of legacies, athletes, socio culturally disadvantaged, and other groups, depending upon the history and type of institution. A number model their admissions pools directly into their financial aid practices. Some search for newer markets like transfers and international students.

A few institutions even dip their toe more deeply in the application pool by using technology to construct probability analyses to determine the likelihood of their applicants turning into matriculants.

These shifts at the margin are encouraging but they mask an even deeper problem. The American education system is failing to create a structured, unified pipeline that offers a seamless transition for students and training opportunities for those who are not college-bound. The tools that locate, encourage, and prepare students for college are antiquated and inadequate to the task.

In our experience at the Edvance Foundation developing a transfer project for two-year graduates into four-year colleges and universities, we have found that the articulation agreements established among two-year and four-year public institutions are often also stumbling blocks in the transfer process. In a world where students/counselor ratios at two-year institutions can shockingly approach 1000/1, a rational, comprehensive, orderly and student-friendly search is often impossible.

Despite all good intentions, these students likely face an uphill battle.

What is the biggest problem these transfer students face? Our experience suggests that social, cultural and familial barriers are often as important as financial obstacles, because the socio cultural issues limit the potential of the students long before the aid package is presented to them.

On the private side, the situation is even worse. There is no private system of higher education in America. As such, the "terms of the deal" are negotiated institution-by-institution. Additionally, there is little sense of a common policy direction in many states with high levels of private colleges and universities. There is even less understanding of the need for and potential of transfers at institutions run by part-time, voluntary boards of trustees. Interestingly, the cumulative effect is that private colleges and universities shut down a higher education market -- community college graduate transfers -- where half of the college-going population now resides.

It may be that articulation agreements work well enough between public sectors of higher education. There are already promising examples. But, ultimately, the solution must be more comprehensive than solving the problem of how "I got into college." Any solution -- public or private -- must look at persistence, time to degree, graduation, indebtedness, and post-graduate employment for students and their families to be successful. Further, it's as much about preparation as admission.

At private colleges and universities, admissions policy begins with the recognition that a private college must always be a place open to anyone, regardless of where or when they started. As the demographics change, the patterns of those who attend private colleges should shift accordingly if these schools base their value proposition on the twin pillars of access and choice. It's a fundamental policy decision and ultimately determines how relevant these institutions will be in the 21st Century.

In American higher education, the focus must be on the students, shape their experiences with the same "surround" provided by a purposeful residential learning experience, and begin with as early identification of promising students as possible.

Isn't there a higher purpose that established why American colleges and universities are tax exempt? Isn't it the duty of higher education leadership to prepare for demographic shifts by breaking out of admission practices and patterns before consumers vote with their feet and look elsewhere?

In the end, isn't it about what's best for the student?