A Spirit of Change

schapiroThe spirit of change sweeping through our social, cultural, political and economic institutions needs to include higher education as well.

U.S. higher education may be the strongest in the world, but to help produce the future leaders we need and to secure our economic future, it must adapt to new realities.

The biggest challenge is posed by swift changes in the college-aged population. The number of students from communities who traditionally attend college is dropping, while the fastest-growing segment is composed of students from families and communities with no experience of college—how to choose one, how to apply, how to pay and how to thrive once there. Many are from low-income families; many are children of immigrants.

America mostly did well in absorbing previous waves of new populations. But back then a high-school education was enough to lift them into the middle class; now they need college. To an alarming degree, though, our higher education system doesn’t seek out these students, isn’t affordable for them and fails to offer the academic and personal support they need to succeed once on campus.

Both government and individual institutions have roles to play in turning things around.

By word and example, President Obama can persuade members of these communities that they can attain higher education. Congress can make the federal financial aid system easier to understand and generally more supportive of low-income students. State governments, even as budgets tighten, can put a priority on making their campuses more affordable for those in need.

At the same time, colleges and universities must adapt, often in ways counter to the instinct to pursue higher institutional rankings and to boast about ever-rising SAT scores, falling admission rates and the like. Almost every useful step involves suppressing institutional self-interest for a broader public good. For instance, merit aid can enhance the status of a college or university at least in the short run, but—since aid dollars are finite and merit awards often go to students who would attend college anyway— the overall result is usually less affordability for low-income students. The many such students who have been under-prepared bring lower test scores. Meanwhile, the special support they need while on campus costs institutions money.

In tough financial times it will be even harder for schools to look beyond their narrow institutional interests. But both the mission of every nonprofit college and university and the broad support that taxpayers provide for higher education, public and private, compel us to pursue the social good.

For our part, Williams has made great strides in recent years. Almost one-third of the members of the Class of 2012 identify themselves as U.S. students of color. Almost one-third have at least one parent without a bachelor’s degree. And over the last 10 years the number of students who qualify for grant aid that covers at least three-quarters of the cost of attendance has grown from one in 20 to one in five. At the same time, we’ve expanded support services for these students so that their experience at the College can better mirror that of students from backgrounds more traditional for Williams.

It’s clear, though, that we can do more to find such students, convince them that they can afford Williams and make sure that we have in place the programs they need to take full advantage of what the College offers. If we allow current financial challenges to keep us from these goals, we will be doing a great disservice to our wonderful college.

U.S. higher education has long been an engine for social mobility. But to remain so it will have to adapt, and fairly quickly, to the new social and economic realities, and Williams needs to be at the forefront of this effort.

– Morty Schapiro