09/18/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

Closing the Education Gap

As president of a university in Southern California that serves a diverse student population, among my top priorities is making college as accessible as possible for all and to ensure that all students who enroll have the best possible chance for completing their degrees. There is no equivocation that earning a degree from a two-year or four-year college opens the door to achieving the "American Dream" and helps to restore our economy, a key component for our national security. Despite this, higher education increasingly fails to meet this challenge.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of first-time entering college freshmen is expected to increase by 13 percent from 2008 through 2019. The largest increase will emanate from minority groups, especially Latinos. Enrollment in community colleges also anticipates high growth. Despite the increase in enrollment, in 2009, the most recent year for which college completion data are available, only 55 percent of all freshmen, regardless of ethnic and cultural background or type of institution, had earned their bachelor's degrees in six years, and only 29 percent had earned associate's degrees in three years.

To put it bluntly, just more than half of the students who seek four-year degrees earn them, and it takes them six years, half-again as much time to earn their diplomas as we say it should. In aggregate, completion rates for seekers of associate degrees are even worse. Is this an enviable record for what many describe as the best system of higher education in the world? I should say not!

Critics of higher education blame high prices. All presidents whom I know are burning the midnight oil to improve efficiency and quality, reduce expenditures, provide financial aid and scholarship funds, and generate increased revenue from non-student and non-tax-funded sources. But to assume that college tuition is the primary barrier to college completion is a gross over-simplification, perhaps more suitable for sound-bites, but certainly not as a foundation for solid educational or public policy. So many more factors influence a student's decision to stay in college or drop out.

Let me introduce you to a student I will call Alex. To save money, he lives at home with his three younger brothers and sisters and his parents, who both work at low-wage jobs. He holds a part-time job to help pay for his education and to contribute to the family income. Recently, his mother was told that her position as a clerk in a state government office was going to be eliminated at the end of the fiscal year. Though the family owns its own modest home, its mortgage is underwater and they can barely make payments.

Yet, Alex and his parents have been smart. He was a reasonably good student in high school and qualified for a number of federal and state grants and scholarships from the university. He carries a full load of courses. Well aware of how debt can derail the family's dreams, he has avoided student loans. His goal is to graduate from college on time and debt free.

As if the family's economic straights were not enough, Alex is suffering academic pressure as well. He is the first in his family to go to college, and his family is very proud. But he struggles with courses, particularly science, math, and English, and worries he will fail to achieve his and his family's dream by not being able to earn the credits required for graduation. He wonders if it would not be best for everyone if he just dropped out for a while and took a full-time job, any job, to help out at home.

Alex's situation is not unusual among the more than 3 million freshmen who entered college this fall. Savvy advice from well-informed high school counselors and college financial aid officers can help students and their families craft plans which make college affordable. Colleges, though, can do a much better job of helping students like Alex weather the academic and social pressures that come with going to college. We presidents have it in our power to begin to help them even before they enroll.

At the University of La Verne, we have developed a model that specifically addresses such areas of need. By forming collaborative partnerships with local companies for the Reach Summer Business Camp, each year we invite 50 first-generation high-school students from surrounding diverse communities to live on campus for a month. They receive mentoring and instruction in basic subjects from faculty who are experienced in the cultures from which these students come. Since 2005, 300 students have participated in the program, and 95 percent of those students have gone on to attend college. Today, we are seeing these students graduate and assume equally significant employment. Two summers ago we established a partnership with the Imperial County Office of Education to provide a similar month-long experience for children of migrant farm workers. I wish you could see the tears and smiles of students and parents during their graduation ceremony from this program.

Both of these programs were initiated by faculty who care deeply about the needs of under-served populations of students like Alex. Neither of these programs receives federal or state funding. Their support comes from true collaborations to meet the needs of all partners. The combination of enduring faculty commitment and sincere desire to achieve mutually-agreed upon goals form the firm relationships on which these programs are built.

Many colleges and universities mount similar programs. But, what if all 4,000 of the nation's institutions of higher education were to create three or four similar programs? I think the results would be remarkable.

What would we see? Alex and his peers from diverse backgrounds would know they could not only gain access to college but could earn their degree as well. Upon high school graduation, he and his classmates would be well on their way to achieving the American Dream. College graduates are far less likely to be unemployed than those with only a high school education. They earn higher pay and pay more taxes than non-college grads. They start new businesses, which create jobs. They develop the new products and processes which under-gird our nation's future strength in the global economy. They are the human capital without which our country cannot continue to compete on the world stage. This is the most expeditious way to close what everyone refers to as "the education gap" and to ensure prosperity for generations to come.