According to the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), approximately 27 percent of all high school graduates are from homes where neither parent has obtained a degree beyond the high school diploma. These students opt for different types of colleges, depending on location, financial aid packages, academic programs, and reputation, so the percentage of first-generation students varies by institutional type.
What may be surprising is that private colleges serve a higher proportion of first-generation and low-income students than public and private doctoral universities. At private nonprofit colleges 17 percent are first generation, and at private doctoral-granting universities, 11 percent are first generation.
In addition, private institutions have their share of students eligible for federal Pell grants. The Pell Institute recently reported that in fall 2014, 33 percent of undergraduates at private four-year schools received Pell or other federal grants. While this proportion is less than that for both private and public two-year and four-year schools, where the rate is 45 percent, it demonstrates that many private institutions already include diversity as part of their mission.
To complement the Pell grants and educate more first-generation and low-income students, schools must provide more scholarships. However, as colleges are confronting the challenge of admitting, retaining and graduating a more socioeconomically diverse student body, their costs of financial aid are rising. Not only must we find this aid, we must also wrestle with admitting fewer full-paying students, or growing the size of the college. Given the added cost of providing scholarships for more low-income students, the challenge remains: How do we make up the difference?
During the last presidential election, the high cost of education and our challenge to educate more low-income students was a focus of heated campaigns. Now, state governments are entering the debate — with some even piloting solutions. Both Tennessee and Oregon provide free tuition for any students attending a community college and New York provides free tuition to students from families earning less than $125,000 a year at both two-year and four-year public colleges. While this increases access, it also places more burden on the taxpayers — and only benefits public institutions.
One advantage of private institutions is that they invest a notable amount of effort and resources in enhancing the student experience. For example, student mentoring programs, smaller class sizes, early faculty involvement, and opportunities for internships have all proven to be effective in increasing student retention.
Why? The reason lies in the fact, that while increased scholarships may increase access, once students arrive to campus, they find they have new challenges that are academic, social and cultural. In six years, only 21 percent of undergraduates who are both low income and first generation will have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 57 percent of their peers whose parents attended college in a higher income bracket, according to the Pell Institute.
It is clear that, while financial assistance enables students to gain access to higher education, it is not enough. What is needed is specialized mentoring and experiential programs that can increase student retention. Thus, it is critical we find a way to direct resources to all universities — private and public — to develop and share strategies that are most effective in admitting, retaining and graduating first-generation and low-income students.
In addition to the government providing scholarships and grants, perhaps it is time for more public-private partnerships, both with other institutions and with for-profit firms. If we can find a way to expand opportunities for students — without solely relying on taxpayers — we will all benefit. In addition to public and private university partnerships, corporations can help as well.
Since corporations are dependent on colleges as pipelines for future employees to maintain a diverse workforce, they should be motivated to collaborate with universities to reduce the cost of education. Their support could be in the form of creating student scholarships, funding work-study programs, sharing executive expertise, hiring more paid interns, developing corporate mentoring programs and providing input to enhance the business curriculum.
The latest PwC CEO Survey revealed that 52 percent of chief executives intend to increase headcount in the next year, an increase up from 48 percent in 2016. However, they also plan to shift the workforce to those with experience and education in innovation, analytics, or digital technologies and capabilities. If this need for technical expertise persists, it seems likely that corporations and employers could benefit from supporting education to educate a more analytically savvy and diverse student body.
It is well known that a bachelor’s degree is associated with numerous benefits, including higher rates of employment, higher wages, better nutrition and longer life expectancies. As these graduates enter our workforce, the benefits to society are visible in enhanced economic productivity, lower costs of social welfare and health programs, greater community engagement and a more diverse workforce.
Only when governments, corporations and colleges join forces to reduce educational costs, expand experiential programming and improve student success, can we find feasible and fundable solutions.
Norean R. Sharpe is dean of the Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University, where she is also the Joseph H. and Maria C. Schwartz Distinguished Chair in Decision Sciences. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of St. John’s University.
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