A smart emphasis on college for low-income students

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2014 - 6:57 PM

White House summit brought good ideas about improving access.

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It’s part of the American dream: The hope that the sky is the limit for our sons and daughters and that our children can lead happy, successful, productive lives — and possibly do much better than mom and dad.

But that dream can be a nightmare when families consider the high cost of higher education — an average of $18,000 a year at public universities and nearly $40,000 for private colleges, according to the College Board. That leaves today’s college graduates with average debt of nearly $30,000.

Those price tags can be daunting even for stable, middle-class families. But many low-income kids and families take higher education off the table altogether because they can’t afford it.

It’s important that all students with college aspirations have a reasonable chance to chase their dreams, both to benefit those individuals but also to produce the workforce needed in a knowledge economy.

President Obama’s recent White House summit on college access for low-income students struck the right tone. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama invited nearly 200 representatives from colleges and universities and other higher-education stakeholders.

But they didn’t gather simply to talk. Participants came with tangible plans to improve access. Those commitments (88 pages’ worth) came in four general areas: properly matching low-income students with colleges that fit their qualifications, increasing the pool of high-achieving low-income students, boosting college advising for underserved students and strengthening remedial education.

A good number of Minnesota groups are on board working to close the college income gap. Two local leaders who were invited to the summit highlighted that work. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler presented the U’s plan to boost first-year retention rates of low-income students. The initiative focuses on financial literacy, summer programs, increased advising and peer tutoring for Pell grant recipients.

Kaler said that the U is “committed to paving the road to prosperity for young people with limited means. … This is all about changing their lives by helping to set their career paths in motion.’’

And Jim McCorkell, president of Minnesota-based nonprofit College Possible, submitted a plan to reach about 20,000 students in Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin and soon Pennsylvania. The organization will help more students navigate the college application and financial aid process.

Also during the summit, a Yale University representative said the college will increase the number of poor students it enrolls by 50 percent through QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization. Northeastern University will offer 30 new grants to cover needy students from Boston public high schools who live in neighborhoods surrounding the university’s campus. And Morehouse College is piloting a new precollegiate assessment model in lieu of the SAT that assesses noncognitive STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) aptitude.

Although the White House effort rightly targets all young adults from poorer families, adding more low-income students will bring more racial and cultural diversity to colleges, because students of color and those from some immigrant groups are disproportionately low-income. Increasing their rates of college graduation will go a long way toward narrowing disparities between whites and people of color — not only in education, but later in life in employment, income and health.

Boosting college attendance is an important component of the president’s worthy focus on income inequality and on narrowing several difficult disparities gaps between groups of Americans. Earlier this year, the White House held a forum on early education — a key element in addressing student achievement gaps. Even the Affordable Care Act, as troubled as its rollout has been, is designed to reduce disparities in care so that more Americans can prosper as healthy, productive citizens.

Equal access to education, good health care, decent housing and good jobs — that’s the stuff of the American dream. Opening more doors for low-income kids who want to go to college can make that dream a reality.

  • A valuable degree

    The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the link between college attendance and earning power is growing stronger by the year. Adults with bachelor’s degrees in the late 1970s earned 55 percent more than adults who had not advanced beyond high school. That gap grew to 75 percent by 1990 — and is now at 85 percent.

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