Times Union Commentary: Make College a Reality for All

John W. Mills, president, Paul Smith's College

Commentary appears in The Times Union Commentary:

When it comes to providing college educations to low-income students, most of the discussion focuses on getting them on campus. But actually keeping those students enrolled in college is a far steeper challenge. Poor finances. A lack of campus support. Insufficient academic preparation. Stress outside the classroom.

They all take their toll: Seventy-five percent of the low-income students in the United States who start college never finish. And 40 percent of all students who start college in this country drop out — the highest failure rate in the world.

Colleges blame high schools, because their graduates aren't prepared for college-level work. High schools fault families for not supporting their own efforts. And families find the financial expectations overwhelming.

We'd do better to unite and concentrate on the cornerstones of success. It's a dialogue that needs to begin now, because the price of inaction is huge.
This is an issue with costly, real-world consequences. Dropping out hurts more than students and their families. It exacts a real cost on our economy. Every year students who don't persist in their studies cost the federal government $130 billion in lost tax revenue.

The dropout crisis is particularly troubling because it inordinately affects impoverished families, and is yet another sign of the vanishing American Dream. Although family income has always shaped educational attainment, today a great student from poverty is less likely to graduate from college than a mediocre student from a wealthy household.

Only 26 percent of eighth-graders with below-average incomes but above-average test scores go on to earn a bachelor's degree. But an almost identical percentage of eighth-graders from wealthier homes with worse scores do the same.

The gap between our low-income children and their higher-income peers in every educational measure — college graduation, college going, standardized test scores — has widened every year since 1980. Income is a better predictor of educational attainment than race, and it's becoming less and less likely that a low-income student, regardless of intelligence, will move up the socioeconomic ladder.

These trends are threatening our future. Because America's colleges and universities receive $175 billion each year in grants, loans and tax breaks, two unlikely allies, President Barack Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., recently addressed college-sector problems. They offered veiled threats that higher education needs to get its act together. Now is the time for these institutions to buckle down and build on proven strategies for helping low-income students succeed.

And there are models for success. At Paul Smith's College, a 1,050-student institution in the Adirondacks, recently implemented software helps advisers know when students encounter trouble in their classes.

But this comprehensive student success program needs more than technology to work. The cornerstone of the program is individual, sustained relationships where faculty work with students to build on their strengths and design focused plans for success.

Since this program was first implemented, the number of students with a first-semester GPA at or above 2.0 has increased 15 percent. And there has already been a 34 percent increase in first-time, full-time students earning associate degrees.

The lesson is obvious. Students respond to immediate and personal attention when they can see others care about their success. But Paul Smith's is just one institution. To have any impact on the educational goals of low-income students, a broader strategy is needed.

We need to ensure that students are prepared for the rigors of higher education. We also need to help students build resilience and survival skills, something College For Every Student has been doing for two decades. By recognizing the imperative to move the dial beyond access to persistence, College For Every Student is about to launch a national initiative to ensure that our students — 20,000 low-income children, in grades 3-12, in 24 states — have the competence to complete college.

College For Every Student will host a symposium, "Building the College Persistence Bridge," at the CFES Center in Essex, Essex County, on June 6. Mandy Savitz-Romer, the Harvard professor who has written a definitive work on college success, will deliver the keynote address. We welcome those with an interest in this issue to attend.