12/27/2012 04:58 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

American Success Depends on Expanding Access to Higher Ed

Many college and university presidents tout the upward mobility a degree provides successful graduates. Of course I believe in the inherent value of higher education. But a careful look at credential completion rates, which have become of interest to both state and national politicians, reveals that completion rates for low-income students haven't really improved over the last 50 years.

Family income continues to be the strongest predictor of whether a student will complete a four-year college degree. Only about 10 percent of students in the lowest income quartile complete a degree within 6 years; for those in the highest income level, that rate is nearly 75 percent.

If one digs deeper into completion rates, even more distressing is that men are increasingly opting out of both secondary and postsecondary education at a rate much higher than women. This opting out is even more dramatic for men of color. When any significant portion of our population -- be it minorities, women, or men -- is underrepresented in higher education, our nation loses the productive potential and unique perspectives they could bring to many fields. And of course, the individual misses out on the intellectual, social, and financial advantages conferred by a bachelor's degree.

American college completion rates used to be number one in the world-now we are 17th, and even lower in the STEM disciplines. Given that the fastest growing segment of potential high school graduates and college attendees is Latino and Hispanic students, many of whom are low income and/or first generation, it's clear we must do more to encourage them to persist in their educations.

Because public secondary and higher education budgets have been slashed across the country, the U.S. is ill-prepared to meet this challenge. A recent tax addition in California, although modest, gives hope that some needed resources will be distributed back to public higher education in that state. Even here in Colorado, the governor has recommended a small restoration of funds to higher education. While that will be much appreciated, it is insufficient for institutions to effectively deal with growing populations of low-income and first-generation Latino and Hispanic students. To be successful, these students require support services such as tutoring and individualized advising. Small class sizes also help prevent them from falling through the cracks. What's more, these students overwhelmingly attend institutions that have fewer financial resources. For every federal dollar received by elite institutions, Hispanic Serving Institutions receive only 66 cents.

We do have some very fine institutions across the country that could help. How do we know which are the best? The "best" institutions -- those ranked the highest -- are the most selective, turn down the highest percentage of students with excellent scores, and cost the most. They tend to be private, not public, institutions, and they dominate most rankings of the top 20 postsecondary institutions. This type of ranking relies on "identity excellence." Your institution is an outstanding one if your entering students are outstanding. They start much closer to the finish line than students at institutions like mine, a Hispanic Serving Institution in rural Colorado. We are often referred to as "less competitive." We are always ranked in the 4th quartile, because we turn down only a few applicants, our ACT scores are in the "average" range, our students are nearly all low-income, and our tuition is low.

I am not judging this ranking system, but for the U.S. to be successful, we have to find ways to reengage male students, low-income students, and students of color. As the assessment movement gathers steam, perhaps a ranking system will be developed that judges quality not on identity excellence, but on value added. That is, we need to recognize and support those colleges and universities that help low-income or underprepared students to navigate the path to a degree. Such students do not travel a smoothly paved interstate highway where detours are few. Rather, they journey along a winding dirt road mined with potholes.

Meeting this challenge will require additional resources, both in P-12 and higher education. By failing to address this challenge, we condemn a generation of kids to lower socio-economic status, and the spiral will continue downward, with a growing divide between the wealthiest and the poorest in our nation. By increasing our investment in education at all levels, we can help mitigate expanding welfare and prison rolls.

America is not only capable of growing our own skilled workforce, but we must do so to remain globally competitive. That can only occur if we ensure all of our citizens have access to higher education. Divided, we fall.