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State university honors colleges can open up access to higher education

Earlier this month, U.S. News & World Report came out with its yearly ranking of what it considers to be the best colleges and universities in the United States. The U.S. News rankings always provoke commentary about and soul-searching from universities, so perhaps it’s fitting that two important pieces about higher education preceded the new rankings, one from The Atlantic and the other from Politico.

Derek Thompson’s piece in The Atlantic was descriptively entitled, “The Myth of American Universities as Inequality-Fighters.” Thompson’s piece discussed the limits of universities as upward mobility engines and he provided support to debunk what he called three myths of higher education: (1) that America’s most prestigious colleges greatly assist upward mobility, (2) that low-income and minority students don’t thrive at elite colleges and (3) that elite schools are admitting large amounts of low-income students.

{mosads}Thompson characterizes the first two myths as liberal and conservative ones, respectively, and he said he believed the last one until researching the data. The Thompson piece goes into detail about the lack of empirical support for each of the three myths and I suggest reading the article to see the information he cites. As Thompson puts it, “When it comes to income mobility, America’s most prestigious schools are like factories working at half capacity.”


The Politico article, by Benjamin Wermund, pursues these issues in even more depth. Wermund suggests that the rating structure used by U.S. News, which for better or worse is the gold standard for college rankings, incentivizes schools to engage in policies that favor higher-income students, such as emphasizing the importance of standardized tests (which correlates to affluence) and alumni giving (which really correlates to affluence).

Further, the Politico piece cites a study by the Jack Cooke Foundation that says “kids from the top quartile of income earners account for 72 percent of students at the nation’s most competitive schools, while those from the bottom quartile are just 3 percent”. According to Wermund, this lack of opportunity for lower (and for that matter, many middle) income students feeds into political and cultural resentment against higher education in general and the U.S. News ranking system doesn’t encourage universities to engage in policies that would address this point.

All of this may be true, but the natural question among readers at a policy-oriented journal like The Hill may be, what can be done about this from a public policy standpoint? The government certainly can’t, and shouldn’t, tell U.S. News  how to do its rankings and the government’s ability to influence private college administrative practices is limited on these sorts of matters.

I would suggest that there is a way for policymakers, particularly at the state level, to improve access to quality education. That is to fund and support public universities, particularly honors colleges in public universities.

Honors colleges are a relatively new trend in public higher education. While honors classes and programs have long existed, honors colleges are more focused programs, often with their own Dean, admissions standards and administrative structure. Honors colleges provide a rigorous private college-like environment in public universities at a much lower tuition rate.

As stated by Frank Bruni in the New York Times:

There are dozens more honors colleges like these across the country, and while they’re hardly secrets, they don’t get quite the attention from college applicants — most notably from those fixated on the Ivy League and its ilk — that they deserve. And it’s likely that at a public university’s honors college, there will be a smaller percentage of students from extremely wealthy families than at one of the most highly selective private schools.

State university honors colleges provide the sort of high-quality education that allows their students to get a similar education to that provided at selective private colleges at much lower cost, which naturally opens the door to more students.

These programs obviously aren’t for every student, but they can help prevent lower-income students from being unable to reach their fullest academic potential because of inability to pay for a more personalized educational experience at a private college. For that matter, honors colleges provide great educational opportunities to middle-income students, given the difficulty for even many upper-middle class families to easily pay for private college tuition.

Legislators and other officials may not be able to do much about Harvard’s admissions policies (particularly regarding legacy admissions) or the U.S. News ranking system. And to be fair, U.S. News has written great articles about honors colleges. But they can do a lot to promote public higher education in general and honors colleges in particular. Doing so would help open the doors of opportunity for many people and would encourage American universities to reinvent themselves in the 21st Century.

Mark R. Yzaguirre is associate general counsel and associate vice chancellor for legal affairs at the University of Houston. He’s written for FrumForum, the Independent Journal-Review and the Huffington Post, and specializes in higher education, politics and law. You can follow Mark on Twitter @markyzaguirre.

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