The current data suggest we are being far from fair. Nationally, four out of five wealthy 24 year olds have a four year college degree. Barely more than a third of middle class 24 year olds have one. That percentage drops to one out of ten college graduates for 24 year olds in the lowest income quartile. The gaps in college attainment (two and four year) for students of color in Illinois are growing and remain stubbornly large nationally. So unless you are one of those people who believe talent and the ability to contribute are defined by the wealth of the family into which one is born or the color of one’s skin (in which case you can stop reading now), we have a real fairness problem.
All of our institutions of higher education in Illinois and almost all nationally have gaps in college completion for low income students and students of color. Let’s think about that for a moment. These are students who have been accepted to college: overcoming inequities in many of their K-12 schools, successfully completing the maze of application and financial aid processes, and successfully enrolling. Yet they still fail to complete college at much higher rates than privileged or white students. Does that sound fair?
Our colleges are made up of good people who would like their students to do better. The good news is that we now know how to remodel our system to give all of our students, especially students who are low income, first generation, or students of color, a fair shot at that ever more valuable college credential. Colleges across the country have put in place a set of policies and practices that have dramatically increased their fairness and reduced the gaps (http://www.edtrust.org/dc/press-room/news/advancing-to-completion). Yet they remain pioneers -- too few in numbers. At the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), we are working intensely with three of our institutions (City Colleges of Chicago, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and University of Illinois at Chicago) and want to work with all of our institutions eventually to do this remodeling. Much of the work is captured in the approach call Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) as part of truly “game changing” strategies for higher education (http://completecollege.org/the-game-changers/). Here is how, in part, it works.
First, we know most students have limited time and resources to complete college. Rather than confronting them with a maze of general education and major choices codified in a course catalog the size of the King James Bible, the institutions engaged in remodeling quickly help their students identify meta-majors that define a general pathway to health sciences, education, STEM, and other major career clusters. They are then put on that path as the default option requiring them to complete key “milestone” courses at the right time to predict timely degree completion without excess credits. In this process, course selection choices are reduced but not eliminated. There are choice points (forks in the pathway) as they move forward toward a specific major. However once students make a choice they are on a default path that is direct, efficient, and difficult to leave.
Second, we know these students lack “college knowledge” about higher education’s rather byzantine systems. Hence, institutions using GPS policies and programs are redesigning advising systems to provide help to those who need it, when they need it. Most current advising systems are passive. Typically advisors see either students who are near failure or high achieving students who are determined to plan every detail of their schedules to maximize success and minimize uncertainty. As one provost put it, advisors need to intervene with the “murky middle” for who targeted, quality advising interventions can make a difference. These intrusive advising systems are based on high quality data that allow just-in-time interventions. For example, one institution found, based on outcomes from 10 years of previous data (this approach is called predictive analytics) that if students in a certain pathway did not complete certain courses at a certain time they had a 95 percent chance of taking five or six years to complete a degree. Knowing that the “choice” to not take those courses was a $20,000 decision that also reduced the likelihood of completing at all, the institution designed their registration system to alert students who did not enroll early in those key courses, and ultimately blocked the students from the enrollment process if they failed to enroll in those courses until they visited an advisor who would clearly lay out the implications of their avoidance of those courses. This is just one example of the kind of advising/direction that can be provided to students utilizing good student information systems now available to every college and integrating these predictive analytics with intrusive advising systems.
Third, the life circumstances of many of these students will suggest going “part time.” Numerous studies of what predicts college completions conclude that going part time means never finishing for almost all students. Therefore, institutions are creating programs to increase the “full-timeness” of all students. These range from 15 (credit hours) to finish (on time) programs to block scheduling programs being implemented across the country. Block scheduling, for example, requires the institution to ensure that all the courses a student needs to finish are organized into morning, afternoon, or evening blocks. This provides students who need to work a predictable schedule so that they can go to school full-time, either during the morning, afternoon, or evening, and work in the alternative time of mornings, afternoons, or evenings. These programs have proven enormously effective in increasing full-time status and successful completions for working students.
Another barrier to completion is that many students come to college underprepared. The traditional institutional approach has been to enroll them in developmental/remedial education. These are zero credit courses that cost the same as credit bearing courses and eat up limited financial aid dollars. This would not be so bad if it worked, but it doesn’t. Studies continue to report that students who are placed in more than one developmental education course have almost no chance of getting a degree. Even students who complete these courses (not that many) do not succeed in the next credit bearing course at reasonable rates. Institutions are remodeling development education programs to improve student success by employing better diagnostic testing to understand what the student really knows and doesn’t know. Students are placed in credit bearing courses with co-requisite supplemental instruction to address targeted deficiencies. Catch up courses – often using modules – are offered so students can focus on what they do not know, learn it in a self-paced way supported by technology, and accelerate progress to successful course completions. Increasing student success in these courses results in increased college completions. Southern Illinois University Carbondale is launching this type of supplemental instruction approach in its math courses in the fall of 2015.
Much more is being done to improve success for underrepresented, underserved students. I have only touched on a part of what higher education institutions know to do. The results are in. Where these remodels are being implemented well, gaps for underserved groups are being significantly decreased or eliminated. This is not rocket science. It takes institutional leadership, hard work, and a willingness to put student success first. This means putting it before what is comfortable for faculty, advisors, and other vested interests on the campus.
It is time to get this done. By focusing on fairness, lives will be improved, and talent demands in the economy will be met. There can be no excuses. It is the responsibility of the leaders and faculty of Illinois higher education to implement these effective practices at every public, private, and for-profit college in Illinois. The IBHE stands ready to partner to make this happen.
Dr. James Applegate is the Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education