It’s No Wonder We Can’t Fix Higher Education


Karen Gross

A recent article in the New York Times by Ron Lieber focuses on how private colleges are reaching “back” to students they accepted after the traditional May 1 deposit deadline to lure these students into enrolling by sweetening financial aid packages. OK, at first blush, this article appears to be yet another piece on the enrollment strains in higher education, acutely felt among smaller private institutions. Higher ed, the piece suggests, is changing.

I agree with the latter statement but not for the reasons provided. Sadly, the article reveals something vastly more and vastly different than what appears on the surface. Let me quote the first paragraph of this piece in its entirety so it can then be deconstructed and examined for its deeper and more devastating meaning. My blood is boiling.

The piece begins:

“In the minds of parents and teenagers going through the college application process, May 1 is the magic date. At that point, you’ve sent in a deposit, bought a sticker for your car window and posted your choice on social media.”  

Start with this, college is not on the minds of many parents, particularly the parents of first generation, low-income students. Sadly, and it is embarrassing for our nation, many low-income, first generation, minority students have not even applied to college. And if they did apply (and complete the Free Federal Financial Aid form), they often did it without parental involvement. Add in students from deeply entrenched white poverty to that group. And, if they applied, they often did not apply to America’s elite ranked private institutions; indeed, these institutions were not on their radar screen – the well-described issue of undermatching. Parents did not visit campuses with them; parents did not get them executive coaches to work on application preparation including college essay writing; parents did not know about deadlines for notification.

So, my first suggested edit: delete the words “parents” or add the modifier, “some percentage of….”

Next, there is an assumption, suggested above, that the May 1 deposit deadline is well known – as in common knowledge. Really? Among what population? For starters, it is not the deadline for many colleges with rolling admissions. Many less selective colleges have long ago abandoned the May 1 deadline. A host of colleges – many of which offer quality two or four year degrees – admit students right up to the day classes begin. Really. And, of course, for those in the know, there is early decision, which has a date for committing way before May 1. And, for the record, many students do not apply to 5 or 10 colleges, given the cost of applying (in time and money); they are not advised – assuming they are well advised at all – to apply to ranges of schools. Many low-income students apply to one or two schools. Period. Full stop.

So, my second suggested edit: delete the May 1 date.

Proceeding onward, the paragraph notes that students have sent in their full deposit by May 1. Well, in truth, many students today cannot afford the deposit. Some send in their acceptance but not the deposit and wait for the college to do something. Some ask for a deposit waiver (risky for institutions on several levels) or pay their deposits in installments. Yes, that happens. And, sometimes those installments are small — $50 at a time.

So, my third suggested edit: qualify the deposit statement by adding “for those able to deposit…”

Moving right along, the first paragraph provides that parents and deposited children then get a car bumper sticker. Another really? This assumes that parents and/or children have cars. For many inner city youth, they not only do not have cars, they do not have a license. Indeed, they have not taken drivers ed. Forget affording a car; they cannot afford insurance.

Indeed, one of the initiatives I considered but never got to launch when I was a college president at a non-selective rural institution was to provide drivers’ education to our many inner city kids – so they get a license which could serve not only to enable them to drive but to have a suitable piece of identification. Forget addressing the issue of parental car ownership among low-income families in urban environs.

Oh, and where exactly does one buy that bumper sticker? It is not in a corner bodega. To get one (unless the college sends it to you), you would get it from the campus store (which means you are ON campus) or through the web (assuming one knows to go there to get a bumper sticker – something that may not be self evident).

My fourth suggested edit: delete the whole discussion of bumper stickers.

Finally, the paragraph ends with a reference to posting choices for college on social media. Yet another really? Doesn’t that depend on whether going to college is seen as a plus and whether one wants to share one’s choice if many of one’s friends have not applied to college, are not interested in college or think you have lost your mind because you are going to college? Yes, a subgroup of students will post where they are going but hosts and hosts of students will not – first generation, low income, minority or ethnically diverse students.

My fifth suggested edit: delete the references to social media.

With all of these edits, one is left with little in that opening paragraph and for good reason. That paragraph applies to a very limited group of graduating high school seniors — those applying to and accepted at America’s more elite private colleges and universities. The paragraph and the article that follows it do not apply to the vast and growing number of first generation, low income, minority students who are or will be attending post-secondary education — many of whom apply to non-selective two and four year institutions. And, many of these students are non-trads (actually more traditional than ever before), returners, transfer students, veterans, parents of all ages. Many do not travel far from home to attend post-secondary education. Many plan on using public transportation (that’s why the Dallas Community College system provides free public transport). Many are working over the summer to see if they can even afford one or two classes in the fall.

This Ron Lieber article and its first paragraph ignores Minority Serving Institutions, such as Hispanic Servicing Institutions, HBCUs, in addition to non-selective public and private two and four year institutions. Add to that, the article ignores certificate and technical training programs. Basically, more is ignored than covered.

Let’s be very clear here. Most first generation, low income, minority, ethnically diverse high school graduates and white students who are the product of deeply entrenched white intergenerational poverty are not going to the institutions listed in the article in the New York Times. Sure, a few are. But, the number of Pell eligible students attending America’s elite colleges numbers is in the hundreds of thousands (being generous). More than 7 million “others” go to college and there is nothing in the first paragraph of this article or the article as a whole that applies to them. Full stop.

So, if our focus on higher educational reform is on the limited audience to which the Lieber article applies – and it is emblematic of many – we are working to fix a wee piece of the higher education pie. Might we be wiser –we would be wiser– to pay attention to broader issues that involves way more students – the students who will be enrolling today and into the future? Might we actually write about how to improve education for at risk students – regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, geographic locale?

Here is one thing I can assure you: the parents of low SES children are not helicoptering for the most part; May 1 is a fake deadline; there is no car to which to affix a bumper sticker and no social media hoopla and certainly for some, there is not even an application let alone a deposit. This Lieber article is why higher ed is not improving; we are not focused on the audience for whom it needs to be improved. That’s an indictment if ever there was one: we are focused on the wrong group of students.

Can we collectively say: Yipes?

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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