Degrees of Access
From the Goucher Quarterly, Summer 2006
One of the fundamental precepts of the American Dream is the dual promise of equal opportunity and upward mobility. In a meritocracy like ours, the reasoning goes, everyone has a chance to succeed. The sons of the middle or working class-Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, for example-arguably have the same shot at becoming president of the country as the sons of the wealthy or well-born-the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, or the Bushes. (One day, the same promise might also be made to their daughters.)
Higher education has long been a factor in the persistence of this belief. The desegregation of public and private schools at lower levels fulfilled an essential prerequisite for broader access to higher education. In the Ivy League and many other institutions, notorious policies of anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination also had to be eliminated. But now, in the 21st century, it would seem that the benefits of a college degree-including an estimated $1.1 million more in lifetime income-should be widely available throughout American society.
How disheartening, then, to learn from a recent Mellon Foundation study, titled "Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education," that while some of the aforementioned legal and institutional barriers have been cleared away, there are still a great many practical hurdles that prevent certain people-particularly the economically disadvantaged-from even attempting to realize the promise of a college education.
The study documents two troubling phenomena: the inadequate preparation for college of students from lower-income families and racial minorities, and the severe underrepresentation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at America’s most distinguished and selective colleges and universities.
"Taken together," it says, "these two pervasive weaknesses jeopardize the country’s levels of educational attainment and productivity, [and] they compromise America’s commitment to social mobility and fundamental fairness." Particularly troubling is that we in the business of higher education often content ourselves with a "rhetoric of inclusiveness"- especially useful in the national political dialogue-when we can clearly document that children from poor families do not enjoy equal access to the best education.
Other studies have supported this conclusion. One analysis, by researchers Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose of the Century Foundation, reveals that students from families in the lowest socioeconomic quartile make up only 3 percent of the student body at 146 selective institutions, while those from the highest quartile make up 74 percent; the latter are also far more likely to graduate. Not surprisingly, Carnevale and Rose also found a strong correlation between family income and scores on standardized tests.
There are obviously very important national policy implications to these data. In both the public and the private sectors, steps must be taken to improve the access to and affordability of higher education for the many bright and promising young men and women who have the misfortune of growing up without significant financial resources.
But it is a cop-out to wait for progress at the national level before taking action. That is why, at Goucher, we have taken a few modest but important steps toward addressing the issues these studies have highlighted. We have become involved with College Summit, a national program that recruits disadvantaged students for summer workshops in which they are taught to tell their own compelling personal stories in college application essays. We have also, over several years, been shifting our financial aid emphasis away from merit scholarships in favor of need-based ones.
This autumn, we are launching another dramatic, albeit small-scale, initiative: an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) for students who show promise, but are at an extreme disadvantage due to lack of funds, poor schools, and an absence of mentors at crucial moments in the process. In the program’s first year, five Maryland students will receive free tuition, room, and board and a stipend over four years, as long as they remain in good academic standing. This summer, they are completing a free, four-week "bridge" program over the summer to help them prepare for first-year college courses in English and math, and other special attention will be provided to help them with the transition to a high-powered liberal arts environment.
Despite the unique help they receive-including an exemption from educational loans that might compromise their families’ ability to make their rent or mortgage payments-the EOP students will be assimilated in every way with the rest of the student body at Goucher. They will, like everyone else, be expected to study abroad at least once under our new international requirement.
The initial phase of the EOP, to which we are committed for at least three years, is funded by a small but generous group of visionaries: the Jessie Ball duPont Fund; Joan Hood Jones ’77, a member of our Board of Trustees; and Richard Essey, the widower of a Goucher alumna who has previously demonstrated his commitment to helping students who might otherwise have faltered in their pursuit of a college degree. We hope we will be able to interest others in joining these early supporters, so that we may expand the program in the future, offering it to greater numbers of students and, we hope, those from other states.
In the meantime, we believe we have made an important start. Five students a year may not sound like many, but in a student body the size of Goucher’s, their presence will certainly be felt. More importantly, there is no doubt in my mind that the opportunities made available to them through this program will have a noticeable influence not only on them as individuals, but also on the communities from which they come.
The problems that make the Educational Opportunity Program necessary have accumulated over a very long period of time, and they cannot be solved overnight. But they will not be solved at all unless we-and our fellow colleges and universities, in Baltimore and beyond-begin doing what we can to chip away at them.