Inequity in Action

What is the mission of public four-year colleges? I would wager that most American would say that they should provide high-quality educational opportunities to all students, regardless of wealth, status, and background. The reality, according to a recent study, is different.

Our Separate & Unequal Public Colleges, a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workplace, highlights the differences between selective enrollment public colleges and open enrollment public colleges when it comes to enrollment, funding and student outcomes. Nationally, the élite public institutions spend roughly three times as much per student as the open access institutions. Nationally, white students are over-represented and Black/African-American and Hispanic students are under-represented when it comes to enrollment at élite institutions. The numbers of Black/African-American students enrolled at selective colleges are actually decreasing. For a variety of reasons, Black and Hispanic students are crowding into open access colleges. This is a major concern because more resources at a college means better graduation rates.

The report calls out the differences of graduation rates at selective colleges (86% for whites and 81% for Black/Latino) and at open access colleges (55% for whites and 46% for Black/Latino). The gap widens as states give ever more resources to those selective institutions – or allow them to charge greater tuition, which further skews opportunities for access. The consequence, the report states baldly is “a tiered public higher education system in the United States that inherently favors White students.” That should be a concern for anyone thinking about our nation’s future.

The report calls for three key changes:

  • Allocate more governmental funding to open access public colleges. That’s where the need is greatest.
  • Try to make sure that enrollment at selective colleges reflects the college-bound population of the state.
  • Rely less on standardized test scores and instead use other means to make sure that Black and Latino students have greater opportunities to enroll in selective colleges.

I encourage you to read the report. It is data-rich, exhaustive, and well-written. It is difficult to argue with data. But what are the next steps?

Equity discussions, planning and actions are taking place throughout higher education. Much of the work, too, is coming directly from the higher education environment (and not elected officials). For example, in Illinois it will be telling to see what progress can be made with the Illinois Equity in Action project discussed in my last post.

My professional intuition is that the 25 participating institutions in ILEA will make significant gains in narrowing the equity gap in student outcomes. They will be able to achieve this through intentionality, mutual support, professional development, and pursuit of better practices. I also anticipate that as plans are developed and implemented, over time, marginal rates of improvement will diminish without growth of resources. The Georgetown report makes that very clear. One can only do so much more with less. Less often means just that: less. If we are going to see institutions of higher education truly become engines of opportunity for all, if we are going to see opportunity for all, if we are going to eliminate equity gaps, the necessary changes will be major. Change without resources can only go so far.

David Potash

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