Conversation About Educational Opportunity in The United States

Conversation About Educational Opportunity in The United States

It’s no secret that a debate rages across the United States about access, diversity, and affirmative action. Part of this debate involves anxiety about college costs and price. Part revolves around the nation’s need to retool itself and upgrade the skills of its human resources to meet the demands of a globally competitive economy. But a major part of the debate has made university admissions policies a kind of academic, ideological, and cultural battleground in which we are asked to perform a sorting function for the larger society.


All of these are troubling and difficult issues. Before taking them up, we want to make several general observations about the nature of the access problem:


  1. Access to our institutions will become one of the defining domestic policy issues in coming years. It is already on the public agenda; it will become even more urgent as we move on.


We must understand that the nature of the access discussion will change dramatically. For our institutions, the issues are profound. It is not simply a problem of fairness or even the distribution of limited resources. What is at stake is our very role as public universities: our institutions will find it harder to sustain themselves as a public enterprise, dependent on public support, if all elements of our society do not believe they benefit from them. Broadening access is the right thing to do in the name of fairness, and it is the right thing to do for the good of the United States.


  1. We are among world leaders in providing postsecondary access, but we do not hold the top spot.


  1. Some of our flagship institutions are trapped in a zero-sum game in which they are unable to offer admission to all qualified students. Public officials and our institutions must somehow find the will to provide all students with the educational opportunities for which they have prepared themselves.


In most states, the problem is not access to the system, it is access to the most prominent and desirable institutions. Public funds virtually everywhere support the opportunity to pursue an academic degree. Students enjoy many options. But access to a community college, a technical institute, or even to some baccalaureate institutions, does not always ensure access to all the possibilities available at a great public research university.


  1. Our traditional concepts of access need to be rethought for the future.


A new form of teaching and learning enterprise is already being created, one that emphasizes distributed learning centers, the use of technology for distance learning, and new methods of assessing and demonstrating competency. If we don’t define and shape these enterprises, they may well overwhelm us.


Financing and financial aid issues are also likely to be transformed. State support is already tenuous. In 15 to 20 years, tens of thousands of middle-class students, their tuition already pre-paid, will appear at our doorsteps. Who are we likely to accept – these students whose tuition has already been paid, or low-income students desperate for financial aid? We must begin thinking about these challenges now.


  1. The full force of the challenge of maintaining the diversity of our institutions has yet to be felt.


According to demographers, the face of America will be remade in the new century. The majority white population will grow only slowly in coming decades. The size of the African American population will increase by 49 percent. Hispanic Americans are likely to become the largest minority group in the United States sometime around mid-century. And Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, collectively, will triple in size. Our institutions must serve all of these Americans.


If appeals to conscience are insufficient, institutional leaders and the American people need to understand that achieving diversity on our campuses is a matter of extraordinary practical importance. In an increasingly diverse world, the decisions we make on our campuses will be better decisions if they are made with the full diversity of opinions, talents, and backgrounds around our tables. Moreover, our students leave us to make their way in this more diverse world and its job markets. We will serve them best if their experience with us prepares them for that world. But when all is said and done, we also need to broaden it because the practical need for diversity on our campuses is too compelling to ignore.


This paper summarizes the thinking and findings that led us to these initial conclusions. It is divided into three parts: first, an environmental scan assessing the nature of the access dilemma; second, an analysis of what must be done not simply to provide “access” to an institution but to provide what we call access to success; and third, a set of recommendations.


The Access Challenge


We will know we are making progress when our programs and services are equally available to all prepared students. We will know we are almost there when undergraduate, graduate, and professional school enrollment mirrors the diversity of the American people. We will know we have at last succeeded when our graduates reflect the economic and ethnic face of America as well.


Finally, we will know that our success is assured when the novelty of full and equal access has long since passed.


Many of us have made good efforts; this document acknowledges several of them. Yet all of us know how much remains to be done. Land-grant institutions were created to open opportunity and broaden access to higher education. Today, this historic commitment must encompass the different educational needs of many kinds of students coming from different and ever-more diverse backgrounds.


Already, fewer and fewer students match the traditional image of a college student – a white male from a relatively affluent family, under the age of 22, attending college full-time. A majority of our students today are women; more students are from minority backgrounds; many come from low-income families; and a lot are older, seeking opportunities to study part time or in more convenient locations in order to juggle education, career, and family obligations. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor is widening in the larger society. This nation cannot function effectively in the future without diverse and inclusive universities.


We are under no illusions about the ease or difficulty of the task we put before ourselves. Below we discuss three great issues involved in the access debate – costs, student development, and modern technologies. But other questions remain as well.


Some, for example, have questioned whether a genuine commitment to access exists on our campuses. They wonder if many in higher education aren’t pointing to financial problems, inadequate secondary schools, contentious debates about affirmative action, and ballot initiatives as excuses for inaction. We must make our commitment real.


We know, too, that access alone is not the real challenge. “Access to success” is. The benefits of a commitment to access to success run in two directions: The more our institutions are able to create environments which help students succeed, the better we fulfill our historic mission; the more we fulfill our mission, the greater confidence the public has in us. This is one area in which institutional self-interest and national needs clearly run along parallel tracks.


We are keenly aware, too, that the variety of our institutions and the states in which they are found complicates the access issue, seemingly beyond measure. Demographically and culturally, Vermont is no more like Alabama than Montana resembles California. Economically, the ability of citizens and public agencies to support higher education varies dramatically from state to state. Some states offer many college-attendance options, public and private; others offer few. In some communities and states, college attendance is likely to be taken for granted by practically everyone; in others, college attendance is the exception, not the rule. The access challenge, in short, is common everywhere; but in each state, it presents a different face. This issue must become the responsibility of administrators and faculty members. If we are to have genuine “access to success,” faculty and administrators must take ownership of the issue, becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of taking students as they are and developing their abilities and talents to the point where they can complete their education successfully.


Finally, by way of introduction, we want to stress that our institutions are increasingly viewed as gatekeepers to the American dream. Whether that should be our role or not is beside the point. Because employers and the public view us as gatekeepers, they have turned us into them. Students, parents, and citizens everywhere understand that our institutions hold the power to withhold or bestow the high levels of skill and knowledge required for success in the modern world. And because they do, their understanding of what is at stake in the access debate is far from academic. In the final analysis, what we are really talking about is not access to higher education, but access to the full-promise of American life.


Three Great Challenges


Three great challenges complicate our efforts to broaden access to American higher education. The first is the issue of costs; the second is the challenge of diversity; and the third is modern technology, the development of a “wired nation” practically overnight. The first two are among the few issues in academic life to which the general public pays much attention. Although each is often misrepresented, both represent real problems that must be addressed. The third is not a problem at all, but an opportunity we have yet to realize fully. In significant ways, it promises to provide solutions to our dilemma.




Few academic issues generate as much public interest today as the question of college prices. Recent reports of steep increases in tuition have fueled concern that the expense of paying for college is rising beyond reason. This is a legitimate concern; but despite these increases, the prices most students and parents bear are remarkably modest.


The vast majority of the nation’s students are enrolled at public institutions, with charges that are much lower than those at private institutions. In short, public university tuition is affordable for most families.


Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that an affordability crisis exists in the United States. It is most acute for students from low-income families. Tuition and fee levels, even at public institutions, are at all-time highs, and room-and-board expenses add to the family’s financial burden. In short, even at public institutions, nominal charges have increased quite dramatically as a proportion of family income.


Like you, we know that many good reasons can be put forward to explain this situation – declining federal and state support, the acquisition of expensive new learning technologies, increases in the cost of providing health care benefits, and expanded student support services, among others. We know also that financial aid in the form of grants, loans, work-study, and substantial tax benefits, reduces the price that many students pay. But from the consumer’s point of view, the explanations are less than persuasive – particularly as traditional financial aid increasingly relies on loans, and reliable reports emerge of young adults saddled with large debts accumulated in the course of financing their education.


Put yourself in the shoes of a low-income parent: If just one of your children wanted to go to a college or university whose average charges threatened to devour about a quarter or half of your household income, wouldn’t you blink? Then consider that most low-income families have no savings to fall back on, no home equity to draw on, and are not nearly as sophisticated about the mysteries of financial aid and how it is used to bring costs and prices within reach as those of us in the academic world.


Our costs are reasonable. They can be justified and the increases in our prices can be explained. Nonetheless, because charges have had to be increased to compensate for declining public funds, today, on average, prices are at a level where they represent a hurdle to access.


This is particularly true for students from low-income backgrounds, many of whom are from minority backgrounds, but most of whom are white. One way or another, all of us together must deal with this issue of affordability, or we run the risk of compromising access. And in compromising that, we risk our future.




Over the next half century, according to projections from the Bureau of the Census, America’s population will increase substantially. Many of these new Americans will be members of minority groups or immigrants. Already in many large cities and in some states, the majority of high school graduates is made up of members of various “minority” groups; in these areas, the term “minority” has lost any statistical meaning. Depending on assumptions about immigration and fertility, Hispanic Americans will become the largest minority group in the country. And the demographic group made up of Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans (“other races”) will triple its current population.


If our society denies Americans such as these access today, can it have any hope of prospering tomorrow?


In recent years, public debate and misunderstanding about diversity as a factor in admissions – about ethnicity and race – have seriously compromised the ability of our institutions and our society to prepare for the demographic upheaval all of us know is coming. In looking at the demographic makeup of potential students in coming decades, there are few surprises about the students who will be arriving at our doors in the next twenty years. Increasingly, these students will be immigrants or members of minority groups, most of them from low-income families. Yet fear, mistrust, and the residue of racism are among the hallmarks of the public debate. Our institutions should not reflect popular prejudices; where they exist, we should confront and reject them.


Because misunderstanding in academic life is nowhere more dangerous than in this area, we want to speak simply. As educators, we are convinced of several things:


– We are convinced of the need to take a broad range of considerations into account as universities evaluate students who seek admission. Without diminishing admission standards public universities should continue as places where some students who otherwise would be denied admission will have the opportunity for higher education.


– We are convinced that in the admissions process our institutions generally have put much more reliance on what they can easily measure (e.g. high school grades and standardized test scores) than they have on what is difficult to measure but may be more indicative of success, namely indices of motivation, persistence, and creativity.


– We believe that all our students benefit immeasurably from an education that takes place in a diverse setting.


– We believe that we cannot fully prepare our students for life in the 21st century unless we can provide them with the value of encounters with people different from themselves.


– Finally, we believe that if our ability to bring together a genuinely diverse learning community of students and faculty is compromised in significant ways, then the quality of the education we provide will be compromised as well.


In no way do we advocate admitting students with little chance for success – students who cannot meet reasonable criteria for admission or who show little promise of being able to do the work.




Education is such an important public good that everyone should have access to as much of it as they want. Fortunately, new developments in technology promise to make that possible.


Just two generations ago, computers were physically imposing but technically modest. In the single decade of the 1990s millions of personal computers made their appearance on desks and laps everywhere – in factories, offices, homes, universities, airplanes, and schools – accompanied by their digital brethren, the facsimile machine and the mobile telephone. Today, low-cost, high-quality versions of each of these are easily within the reach of most American households – and as power rapidly increases, the price decreases.


At the same time, a national information highway capable of fully supporting these digital capabilities is now in place. All of these developments foreshadow new education and learning possibilities for Americans – in the home, on-campus, and at work, for young and old alike.


Although this technological revolution is still far from complete, it is already clear that it promises educators and students unprecedented access to a wide spectrum of robust, sophisticated devices and networks capable of individually tailoring instruction and exponentially increasing access to learning.


Managing the transition involved in all of this will be difficult. Many public officials assume that distance learning is less expensive than the classroom variety. It can be, because technology makes it possible for one instructor to reach many more students. However, as all of us know, delivering learning at a distance sometimes costs more than delivering it on campus. The technology itself is not enough; learning centers of various kinds, where students can meet with faculty for advice, guidance, and mentoring, are also essential. Despite the expense, technology represents one of our best educational hopes for the future, particularly for the place bound.


Looking Ahead


Costs, diversity, and technology are the great drivers influencing the access debate. But they are not the principal reason for broadening access to higher education in America. Work is now increasingly knowledge-based; our society requires a well-educated workforce. The quality of our national life is linked to high-quality education; there is a direct connection between education, economic efficiency, and national productivity. Low-skill and low-wage jobs are going abroad; our economic future lies in working smart. Educational inequality is expensive: Excellence costs, but ignorance costs far more.


But in the final analysis our support for broader access is based on national values, resting on tested democratic concepts of excellence, fairness, and opportunity. We cannot afford to squander our people’s abilities, wherever they are found. We cannot set out to ignore the educational needs of large portions of our population without exacting an enormous price from ourselves in terms of lost talent and missed opportunities. We should not stand idly by as the gap between rich and poor in America, now greater than it has ever been, widens; higher education is the great economic equalizer.


It also needs to be said that the very nature of our society requires a highly educated citizenry. Our graduates are more likely than those with less education to vote, to participate in civic affairs, and to lead discussions on (and make thoughtful and informed decisions about) public issues. We want to state our conviction that state and land-grant university leaders must play a role in transforming these discussions. Our concern is fixed largely on the shortcomings in public discourse about access, but it extends, as well, to the nature of the conversation on campus. We understand that in setting out to broaden access we will create a variety of educational and management problems for ourselves. That’s the nature of leadership in changing times. But our reward will be the maintenance of an effective and fair system of higher education that serves America well.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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