Encouraging diversity and expanding educational opportunity are both important and necessary to protect our founding values of fair starts and upward mobility. Unfortunately, current efforts fall short in critical ways. Programs aimed at increasing enrollment of minorities and disadvantaged students overly focus on the admissions decisions of today’s existing pool of qualified 12th graders, rather than trying to expand this pool. For those students who do reach college, too many lack the support they need to finish: The graduation rate for high-income students is 60 percent higher than the rate for low-income students.
Addressing these problems will require a new ethic for colleges and universities, one that calls on them to go into their communities to reach out to entire classes of students early in life—providing support and mentoring through grade school, into high school, and beyond.
One way to do this is to promote a nationwide educational early intervention effort by expanding GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) and other mentoring programs through partnerships between private and state universities and local communities. In addition to providing public support, we should ask colleges to take the lead themselves—ideally with tuition assistance or promises that qualified students would receive scholarships at their sponsor schools. We could encourage top universities to form a “High Hopes Coalition,” where schools would commit to long-term early intervention programs and offer free tuition to any qualified student admitted from a participating program.
Another way would be to create a “College Completion Bonus Fund.” The Bonus Fund would build on the Clinton administration’s College Completion Challenge Grants program and reward schools that take the initiative to improve the performance of their disadvantaged students with cash bonuses. The Fund would:
- Require colleges to report data on the number of low- and middle-income and minority students they enroll and graduate.
- Focus financial incentives on the number of students graduated, rather than the percentage, so that colleges aren’t encouraged to admit fewer low-income students.
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