03/14/2014 10:47 am ET Updated May 14, 2014

Do States Really Care About Equity in Higher Education?

This post is co-authored with Thai-Huy Ngugen, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and research assistant at the Pen.

Last week, the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania released a new report -- "Renewing the Promise: State Policies to Improve Higher Education Performance. " The report, authored by Joni E. Finney, Laura W. Perna and Patrick M. Callan presents the findings from a five state exploration of college attainment. Texas, Illinois, Georgia, Washington and Maryland were included in the study.

Overall, the report is focused on how state policies can affect individual performance in college. Given that we both work at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), we were most interested in the report's attention to racial and ethnic minorities in the five states. Of note, the states studied include 119 MSIs -- Texas (72), Illinois (19), Georgia (10), Washington (12) and Maryland (6).

Interestingly, Renewing the Promise points to the large growth and future rise in Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). Finney and colleagues note "In four of the five states the growth of Hispanic high school graduates is expected to exceed 80 percent, the national average, from 2008 to 2025: Georgia (252 percent), Illinois (47 percent), Maryland (245 percent), Texas (115 percent) and Washington (144 percent)," (p.2). This growth suggests that more institutions, specifically in these regions, will boast student populations that are over 25 percent Latino, increasing the number of institutions qualified for HSI eligibility and funding.

Furthermore, "the share of Black high school graduates currently exceeds 15 percent, the national average, in three of the five states: Georgia (35 percent), Illinois (16 percent), Maryland (35 percent), Texas (13 percent) and Washington (four percent)," (p. 2-3). Although these data are evidence of progress -- as more students from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their likelihood of entering college -- this positive trend must not deter states from developing more equitable policies that can alleviate high barriers to college completion.

Within specific states, Renewing the Promise points to some troubling trends. In Georgia, the report uncovers poor performance in several areas for the state's Black, Hispanic and low-income populations. In Illinois, Finney and colleagues note significant disparities between Chicago and the remainder of Illinois and these disparities fell out along racial and ethnic lines. The state of Maryland needs to pay considerable attention to its Black students as they are performing at a lower level than their White peers. Similarly, Texas must keep a keen eye on Latino students, as there are inequities in performance between the growing Latino population and the White population. But let's be honest, these disparities -- by race and class -- are nothing new, nor are they shocking. In the past decade, federal interventions have defined the debate on equity in education, but noticeable progress -- measured by college enrollment and completion for minority populations -- has been mediocre at best. Renewing the Promise offers a more refreshing point of view in a room of stale air as it highlights states' potential to improve educational outcomes in light of growing financial constraints.

The report's authors make it clear that states are having difficulty developing policies that "1) strategically use fiscal resources; 2) align or match educational opportunities in the state to student needs; and 3) ease student transitions between educational sectors," (p. 6). We know that many colleges and universities -- especially, institutions with a majority minority population -- are doing more with less. No longer enjoying a bountiful source of funds -- with Congress calling for limited research funded by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) --
institutions are having a difficult time identifying their financial priorities while juggling the demands of their academic and political constituencies. Greater support and intentionality by their state governments could help buttress those areas of tension so that institutions can focus on educating as many students as possible.

With the exception of Maryland, which has been a highly problematic state for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) due to long-term and pervasive de facto segregation, none of the five states studied had a "strategy to link state appropriations, tuition, and financial aid in ways that [would] help achieve higher levels of educational attainment," (p. 6). For so long, we have looked to colleges and universities to achieve more equitable outcomes among their student populations, but we have forgotten that their ability to do so is limited by poor state leadership and policies.

According to Finney and colleagues, "[A] long-term policy for a public agenda tied to the well-being of individuals, state economies, and state civic cultures is fundamentally a state responsibility. This responsibility must also be shared with business and higher education leaders," (p. 9). In order for states to move forward, they have to care about all of their citizens and their rights to opportunities in higher education. They also need to understand the long-term benefits of ensuring equity and equality. Without this attention, meeting attainment goals will be nearly impossible and the United States will continue to fail its citizens and lag behind other nations.

For more information on this five state student see the forthcoming book The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).