Higher education leaders from across the U.S. commit to boost college access and success for low-income, minority students

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Goals will result in a 20 percent increase in the number of low-income and minority graduates

Publication date: 
December 3 2009

WASHINGTON (December 3, 2009)—Data released today from the Access to Success (A2S) Initiative show alarming, but reversible, national trends: Far too few low-income and minority students are enrolling in college, and even fewer make it all the way to commencement. This comes at a time when every American needs high-level skills to compete in the increasingly global economy, and when other nations are producing greater numbers of college graduates.

     The 24 public college and university systems participating in A2S, a project of the National Association of System Heads (NASH), are taking unprecedented responsibility for turning the tide and dramatically improving student outcomes on their campuses. These systems have pledged that by 2015 they will halve the gaps in college-going and degree completion that separate low-income students and students of color from others.

     According to “Charting a Necessary Path,” the baseline report of the Initiative, the combined data from these systems show:

  • Low-income and minority students enroll in and graduate from four-year programs at disproportionately lower rates than do other high school graduates in their respective states.
  • At two-year colleges—often viewed as the pathway into higher education for many underprepared students—low-income and minority students are overrepresented in terms of enrollment. However, most of these students do not transfer to four-year institutions or earn a credential or degree. As a result, they are underrepresented among completers.

     A2S systems comprise 378 two-year and four-year campuses in urban, suburban, and rural settings, enrolling more than three million students. Collectively, these 24 systems educate almost 40 percent of undergraduates attending public four-year colleges and universities, so what they do and how well they perform matters a lot—both to their respective states and to the nation.

     A2S leaders are well aware of the challenges they face. They know that while state investment in public higher education is declining and pressure to become more selective is mounting, there is no time to waste in making their campuses work better for the full range of young people in their states.

     “Not even budgets cuts the size we are experiencing in California can justify abandoning our mission to improve both access and success for students in our systems,” said Charles B. Reed, NASH president and chancellor of the California State University System. “These students are the lifeblood of our states. Their future is our future. We need to be ready to reinvest in education.”

     To produce the educated workforce America needs, the country needs honest data that tell us where we stand and how much we are improving. Unfortunately, most publicly reported data on college-going and completion omit large numbers of students. Transfer and part-time students aren’t included in federal data collections, nor is the progress of low-income students tracked through college. However, these previously uncounted students account for two-thirds of students in the A2S Initiative and a similar percentage of higher education enrollments nationwide.

     “Students who aren’t counted don’t count when policies are debated and decisions are made,” said Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher education at The Education Trust and coauthor of the report. “By measuring results for such nontraditional groups as low-income, transfer, and part-time students, the A2S metrics provide an unprecedented view of how well institutions are serving their entire undergraduate enrollment—not just a select few.”

     Participating systems have agreed on a common set of metrics to evaluate their progress toward their shared 2015 goal, and NASH has commissioned The Education Trust to analyze and publish the data. The metrics created for the Initiative measure the following:

  • ACCESS: Does a higher education system’s entering class reflect the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic profile of its state’s high school graduates?
  • SUCCESS: How do the success rates of low-income and underrepresented minority students compare with those of other students within the system?
  • ACCESS+SUCCESS: Do the system’s graduates reflect the diversity of the state’s high school graduates?

     Given the broad cross-section of public higher education represented in the Initiative, the data tell important stories about how well low-income and minority students are moving into and through college:

Four-Year Institutions
     Some A2S systems already have entering classes that are as economically and racially diverse as their states, or even more so. For example, City University of New York has no income gap among either freshmen or transfer students. Similarly, entering students at the Tennessee system are more racially diverse than the state’s high school graduates.

     Although the data show that A2S institutions typically are more diverse than other public colleges nationwide, low-income and minority students are still underrepresented among the systems’ entering students and graduates:

  • In A2S states, underrepresented minorities—African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians—account for 36 percent of the A2S states’ young high school graduates. However, just 29 percent of A2S system freshmen are from these student groups. Although 41 percent of the high school graduates ages 18-24 are from low-income families, only 30 percent of freshmen enrolled in A2S systems receive Pell Grants (federal financial aid for low-income students).
  • In A2S systems, about 45 percent of low-income and underrepresented minority students entering as freshmen earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, compared with 57 percent of other students within these systems.
  • Interestingly, transfer students who receive Pell Grants graduated at the same rate (60 percent) as other students in A2S systems.

Two-Year Institutions
     Although two-year colleges serve as important access points to higher education for many low-income and minority students, the results in terms of success are worrisome.

  • Within four years of entry, fewer than one-third of all freshmen entering two-year institutions in the A2S systems complete either a certificate or an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college within the system. For underrepresented minorities, the success rate is lower (24 percent) than for other students (38 percent). But for students receiving Pell Grants, the success rate (32 percent) is the same as for other students.
  • Low transfer rates are a particular concern. Only 12 percent of underrepresented minority freshmen—and 16 percent of whites and Asians—transfer from two-year colleges into bachelor’s degree programs in the system within four years.
  • Although 80 percent of community college freshmen intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, roughly 7 percent of minority students who enter A2S community colleges earn bachelor’s degrees from system institutions within ten years.

     Each of the Access to Success systems has set its own overall progress targets relative to its own unique circumstances. But all will hold one another accountable for meeting the collective goal of cutting by at least half the gaps in college-going and college success that separate low-income and minority students from other young Americans. 

     “Closing the achievement gap is not just a competitiveness issue for our nation, it is also the civil rights issue of our day,” said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. “In an era where a college degree is the path to a meaningful career and a high quality of life, we simply must make an affordable higher education readily available to more low income and underrepresented minority students. That is the goal of this initiative.”

     Earlier this year, President Obama set a goal for America to regain the global lead in college-degree attainment by 2020. In no small measure, our success in meeting this goal—and in helping our once-vital economy rebound to generate more job opportunities for all Americans—will depend on higher education leaders taking responsibility for making colleges work better for all of the students they serve.

     “The willingness of the Access to Success leaders to lay out the facts, even when the story those facts tell might be uncomfortable, signals a seriousness of purpose rarely seen in higher education,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “The bold work they are committing to do won’t be easy, but these systems are stepping up to do what’s right—not just for the millions of students they educate, but for their states and for our entire nation.”

     Access to Success is supported in part by grants from Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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About NASH
The National Association of System Heads (NASH) is the association of chief executives of the 52 college and university systems of public higher education in the United States. The goal of the organization is to improve the governance of public higher education systems.

About The Education Trust
The Education Trust promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels—pre-kindergarten through college. We work alongside parents, educators, and community and business leaders across the country in transforming schools and colleges into institutions that serve all students well. Lessons learned in these efforts, together with unflinching data analyses, shape our state and national policy agendas. Our goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign far too many young people—especially those who are African American, Latino, American Indian, or from low-income families—to lives on the margins of the American mainstream.