Despite our progress in democratizing higher education, it seems that racial and economic disparities are persisting and even increasing; these disparities will define the course of future generations. Clearly, it is time for us as presidents and boards to turn our attention to low-income and first-generation students—who they are on our campus, how we are serving them, and what connections we could be making to help them complete their educations. In addition to carefully controlling our costs, we must better manage the effect of educational expenses on our most vulnerable students.
Without widespread change, we see ahead an unwelcome stratification of American society due to the expense of higher education and rising postgraduation debt. As recognized in 2018 by the Lumina Foundation, traditional financial aid cannot today match the demand for support that the ever-increasing population of low-income students has brought to American higher education. Lumina’s report, Beyond Financial Aid, points out one particularly compelling indicator: “The average Pell Grant today covers only 33 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year college as compared to roughly 73 percent in 1980.” Research by the Brookings Institution in the report Black-White Disparity in Student Loan Debt shows clearly that this stratification is racial as well as economic and that loan indebtedness is twice as likely for low- to middle-income black students as it is for white students.
At our university in Texas we know that those same disparities apply in great measure to first-generation students, a population on the rise in our state. At Midwestern State University we began an experiment two years ago to interrupt and redirect the downward trajectory for first-generation students. We configured a program that would provide cost-free education for four years to students in the estimated family income range of $50,000 to $120,000. Students were selected on the basis of a competitive application process configured by a committee of student affairs staff. Forty students are now in that program, and the retention and graduation results for their cohort far exceed average student performance and especially performance for first-generation students. This experiment, funded by a grant from a generous foundation, shows the power of freeing students from the cost of higher education. These students will graduate debt free, and they have been able to focus exclusively on their education rather than divide their time and energies between the workplace and the classroom. In addition to the financial support, programming is designed specifically to prepare them to navigate higher education, participate in campus events, prepare for leadership and service roles in the community, engage in international study, and select a career. This programming alongside regular monitoring of academic progress has resulted in retention levels above 90 percent in this second year of the scholarship.
We have had less success with our long-standing tuition-free guarantee to students with an estimated family income under $50,000. It was only when we began partnering with the local branch of a national charity that we saw an increase in students enrolling via this program. They needed the transportation, child care, and other necessities that our traditional form of student aid could not provide. Our local charity was well equipped to provide this support. Public and private universities have long offered donor-supported scholarships to defray the cost of tuition, but now direct connections between giving and college debt are emerging, as is our awareness of student hunger and homelessness. Colleges and universities are adding food pantries, clothes closets, and ride shares. Such critical items, earlier hidden or viewed as insignificant or incidental costs, clearly contribute to higher persistence and graduation rates among low-income students.
As board members and presidents struggle with decisions affecting the cost of college attendance, we must also expand support for our present demographic: the growing percentage of low-income and first-generation students.
Suzanne Shipley, PhD, is the president of Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.