Tag Archives: access

The Reality of College Admissions

Tomorrow is April 1.

How fitting that newspapers across the United States will run stories about Melissa, or Johnny, or Tong, or Razan, getting into some ultra-selective college or other. We’ll hear all about how the “America’s Top Colleges” just keep getting more selective as application numbers soar higher and higher and admit rates fall farther and farther. Relief will be palpable in the homes where a child got that coveted email saying “You’re in!”, and sadness will permeate the homes where all the emails from America’s “best colleges” say something like, “I’m sorry to inform you…”

And these stories will have about as much relevance to college admissions in America as a story about Warren Buffett’s tax bill has to me.

Here’s a fact for you. In 2015 “America’s Top Colleges,” as defined by the top 10 schools in the US News and World Report rankings of universities and of liberals arts colleges, enrolled exactly 0.8% of all undergraduate students in America.

That’s less than 1%. As in such a small number as to have no meaning.

The reality of college admissions in America is that (according to the U.S. Department of Education) there are around 20,000,000  students enrolled attending some college or other and the vast, vast majority of them attend non-selective or barely selective institutions.

Most work more than 20 hours per week to help pay those tuition bills. A substantial fraction have no time for partying on Thursday (or Friday or Saturday) nights, because they have to get home to feed the kids or help them with their homework. An embarrassingly large number skip meals because they have to save money for tuition or are homeless. Far too many take six, seven, or even ten years to graduate because they can only take one or two classes at a time. Many bear the scars of military service in Afghanistan or Iraq. And their average age is well over 22.

That’s the reality of college admissions. Not Johnny getting into Williams. Or Melissa getting into Princeton. Or Razan getting into Stanford. Or Tong getting into Grinnell.

So, newspaper editors of America, how about this year we give stories about who did or did not get into “America’s Top Colleges” a pass. Instead, write us a story about how Johnny is living at home so he can work and go to community college part time? Or about Melissa trying to figure out how she is going to get to her classes on time after work? Or about Razan being trying to decide whether to take 12 credits or 15, when 15 would mean skipping lunch the entire semester? Or about Tong heading off to his local state university after finishing his AA degree when he finishes his AA degree this summer?

Those stories would be anything but an April Fool’s joke.

What Keeps You Up At Night?

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a private meeting chaired by Jeff Selingo, the purpose of which was to provide him (and his colleagues at Georgetown and Arizona State) with feedback on a (soon to be) new executive education program designed to prepare the next generation of higher ed leaders. The meeting, that followed a very interesting panel discussion, included a mix of university presidents, deans and other senior leaders, foundation executives, search consultants, and others working in and around senior leadership in higher ed.

The facilitator for the session was a former member of George Mason‘s Board of Visitors, Kathleen deLaski, who started us off with the following question: “What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of higher education?”

As you might expect from such a large (30 or so participants) and diverse group, there were many answers to this question, but at the top of the list were concerns about access and the growing inequality that restricted access to higher education is causing. Other big concerns included finding sustainable financial models, issues around teaching and learning, a perception that the pool of potential senior leaders has gotten too shallow, and worries that the internal systems in higher ed are not up to making the changes that will be needed in the coming decade. But only a few of the participants didn’t mention access in some way, shape, or form.

Not convinced that access to higher education is a problem? As Selingo points out in his recent book, College Unbound, a young person’s odds of obtaining a bachelors degree are closely tied to his/her family income. Children coming from homes with a family income above $90,000 per year have a 1:2 chance of obtaining a BA/BS degree by age 24. If the family income is between $60,000 – $90,000, those odds drop to 1:4, and if the family income is below $35,000, the odds fall all the way down to 1:17. Not surprisingly, the odds of someone from a lower income family getting into a highly selective institution are also terrible compared to students from upper income families. (168)

That’s an access problem that should be keeping us all up at night, especially when you realize that 21 percent of children aged 5-17 in the United States are living in poverty, which is a 24% increase over 1990. In other words, the likelihood that any American high school senior is going to graduate with a bachelors degree is just going to keep falling until (a) we figure out a way to get more kids out of poverty and (b) we figure out how to provide greater access to those kids. Otherwise, frankly, we’re in serious trouble as an industry, not to mention as a country.

The solutions to getting kids out of poverty are well above my pay grade, but solutions to access are something I know a little bit about. And what I know is that it is not enough to throw money at the problem — greater funding opportunities for students help, and help a lot, but scholarships and other forms of financial aid are not the only answer. Just as important is creating the circumstances in which students who do enroll can graduate in a reasonable amount of time, i.e., four to six years.

Many colleges and universities devote an incredible amount of energy to student retention programs, and proactive administrative efforts do help. But what also helps, and this is where historians have a role to play, is faculty members who think carefully about student success and design courses and curricula that will facilitate success and learning simultaneously.

This is a complicated problem for history, because when it comes to our majors, too often we don’t see them at all until they are sophomores, because future history majors very often have taken an AP history course in high school and so have placed out of our freshman courses. And those freshman courses all too often exist just to serve the demands of a general education curriculum, not the history major.

Given this reality on so many college campuses, it seems to me that history departments can play their own small role in the larger access/retention problem by rethinking the sequence of courses from the first semester of a freshman’s college experience right through to graduation. And, we need to reach out to our campus retention specialists and ask — what is it that makes it more difficult for our students to graduate? And what can we do to help change that, especially for the students who are at most risk?

Changing the reality of student access and success in higher education is a big issue — far too big for any one discipline to fix. But as historians, we also know that grassroots efforts across a broad population often aggregate into something bigger than one has any reason to expect. In the historical literature we often call those “popular movements” or “change from below.”

It’s high time we started our own popular movement or joined someone else’s.

 

Taking the History of Digital Media Seriously

Several years ago, our late colleague Roy Rosenzweig wrote a very important article for the American Historical Review on what is happening and what may happen to the digital record of our days. In his direct and clear way, Roy called on governments, historians, archivists, and others to take seriously the notion that we have to find ways to preserve and make available the hundreds of thousands of terabytes of information being generated weekly (if not daily) in the digital present.

One of the places that Roy’s charge has been taken up is the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. A mutli-disciplinary research and teaching center, the CMH brings together a number of scholars active in digital humanities, media research, filmmakers, and researchers interested in issues of access. As a recent news item pointed out, the CHM will not only be producing resources for the general public, encouraging innovative teaching, and fostering research, its members will also be advocating for more systematic preservation of digital records in both the public and private sectors.

Across the United States (and around the world) there are many universities that could bring together interested faculty and others around similar purposes. But it’s really up to those of us in the academy interested in these issues to take the lead. For so many people in government or the private sector, preserving the mushrooming volume of email, text messages, digital video, blog postings, and just plain digitalized documents is just a headache rather than an imperative. The more we can do to provide guidance on the development of infrastructure for the preservation of these born-digital or digitalized materials, the more our students and their students will have to work with when they begin to address the history of the early 21st century.

Centers like the CHM in Sydney provide a useful model for how we might proceed.