The media have an important role to play in helping the public understand the challenges at work in our higher education system and holding institutions accountable for delivering the promise of higher education. While education has a number of legitimate goals, among the most central are promoting cognitive and socio-emotional development, allowing students to attain general knowledge and skills, and helping students become desirable from the perspective of employers. For the latter, they must graduate.
At Otterbein University we remain committed to ensuring we keep the costs of a college and university education low so that we can retain our access mission, including serving low-income and first generation students. There are, obviously, some significant challenges. It would be ideal if the media did its part in articulating fairly and accurately the state of higher education, including its stated purpose, its successes and the many challenges being faced. One of the points to be emphasized is that the goal of college access has force and plausibility as an aim of social policy only insofar as colleges and universities function as effective means for delivering what they promise to deliver. What follows from these considerations, then, is that whatever form access strategies assume, college campuses need to adopt corresponding strategies that meet the needs of the students they choose to enroll.
Also of importance is that the change in State Grant programs. Ohio spends less than half of the $224 million in need-based aid it spent in 2008. In fact, for 2011-12, Ohio spent, on average, only 3 percent (36th of 50 states) of the U.S. per student state average need-based aid. This has created some challenges for low-income students attending private residential colleges in the state, colleges that have very successful outcomes serving low-income and under-represented students. Last, but of equal significance, is the passage of the Dream Act ensuring that young men and women who have been living and studying in Ohio will have the opportunity to pursue a college degree. These are folks whom we know will become mindful stewards and respectful members of our community especially when we demonstrate that they are welcomed members of our communities.
All said, higher education and the media need to continue to think collectively, collaboratively and critically about ways to continue to improve the completion rates of the women and men who choose to enroll in colleges universities across the state. What line of questioning should we pursue to understand more fully some of the contributing factors to the success rates at community colleges and universities throughout the state without compromising the importance of maintaining productive pressure on the legislators, administrators and faculty alike?
A few lines of analysis come to mind.
College Costs: The media has been quick to report that college tuition and fees have increased at 4.5 times the rate of inflation. What the media has failed to report, however, is that most private residential campuses in Ohio haven't seen an increase in net tuition received per student for at least a decade; they have been providing more institutional aid. Additionally, in the public sector, tuition has been rising, in large part to keep up with the reductions in state and federal support. When accounting for inflation, the state subsidy per student was higher a decade ago than it is today. That said, some very wealthy colleges and universities, which are price inelastic, have seen increases in their revenue flows. This is mainly because they attract students from the wealthiest families who have an ability to pay the higher price. This is not the case, however, for most of the college-going population.
Pell Eligible: Bachelor's attainment rates for young people from high-income families are more than seven times those from low-income families. Public 4-year colleges used to spend more than twice as much on needy students, but now spend about the same as on students from wealthy families. Are campuses in Ohio allocating resources to attract students that might appear more academically prepared to improve their graduation rates? Keep in mind that low-income students must devote an amount equivalent to 70 percent of their income to the cost of college. How can we work to bring attention to the fact that students who are Pell Eligible experience significant challenges paying the full cost of college attendance? This, undoubtedly, significantly affects their ability to focus on school. What students' compromise, at times, is the ability to live on campus even when we know that students who live in residence halls tend to graduate at higher rates than commuter students. What would it cost the state of Ohio to waive any gap between students' financial-aid award and tuition and fees? How could the State assist private residential colleges to help in these efforts? What would it cost to place students into "college-friendly" jobs to reduce barriers to full-time attendance? What would it cost to furnish the free use of textbooks?
Full-time and Part-Time Students: Importantly, many studies continue to confirm our suspicion that students who enroll full-time and enroll continuously tend to have higher completion rates. Are there reasons that make full-time attendance a challenge for low-income students? Is there some significance to this?
Metrics: It is also important to keep in mind that some of metrics, e.g., retention and graduation rates of first-time degree seeking students, represent only a subset of the students served by colleges and universities and fail to tell the full story of the good work happening to serve part-time students, transfer students, and those that start terms other than fall. There is a need, then, for alternative success measures for universities serving students with variable enrollment patterns and great variability in their student populations. For example, if we could identify four year colleges and universities that serve community college transfers well, we might be able to hasten college completion for a significant number of students. We need to encourage partnerships that are "student-centered" not institution-centered.
All said, we need to work together to ensure that campuses promote high achievement and enable the success of the young women and men who enroll. Although it is true that many high school graduates remain only marginally prepared to do college-level work, we have a great deal of evidence that there are campuses that have adopted practices that promote student success. Whether it be creating cross-functional teams responsible for promoting student success, establishing learning communities that promote the academic and social integration of students, promoting financial aid policies that enable students to focus on their school work, engaging in curricular and co-curricular redesign to ensure we are meeting students where they are, we also need to adopt a mindset that tells us that all students can learn if we provide the types of learning environments that will foster their intellectual, social and moral growth.