It’s not always about money… It’s a matter of access and opportunity!

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In light of President Obama’s recent comments and speeches about higher education, there are some deeper issues that the country needs to address besides capping the increased costs and need for more effective federal financial aid initiatives. For example, there are increasing opportunity gaps between underrepresented students of color and European American peers when it comes to college access. Yes, it’s important to provide federal funding to increase access for low-income, minority, and first-generation college students; yet, the solution is not always to throw money at the problem. There needs to be a clear plan in all areas of higher education to allow diversity and access. 

An essential question is whether all students should go to college. For example, the condition of college access and educational equity are the best indicators of the overall efficiency and equity of the nation’s higher education system. Yet, inequalities in access has major consequences for persistence, particularly for those high school graduates who are qualified and seek to earn a bachelor’s degree (CollegeBoard, 2007; NCES, 2006; NPSAS, 2004). Opportunity is all but ruled out for increasing numbers of minority and low-income students by record levels. Declining access to post-secondary education today combined with powerful demographic forces already at work provide a deterioration in educational opportunity. There are important lessons for college access policy in how each of these variables affected rates of college access, enrollment, and degree completion for underrepresented students of color. Unless reversed, this interrelated pattern of shifting priorities, spiraling unmet need, and educationally counterproductive student decision-making predicts an inevitable widening in participation, persistence, and completion gaps over the next 15 years (ACSFA, 2001, 2002, 2006; CollegeBoard, 2007; Long, 2008; Wei and Horn, 2002).

An all-important question to ask ourselves as citizens is the purpose of education. Many scholars and city officials feel that college is critical for upward mobility socio-economic status, financial security, stability, and governance. Then, as a city, we need to ask ourselves one essential question to begin understanding the rigor that we should prepare Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) students: whether all PPS students should go to college? Pittsburgh’s educational philosophy hangs on this answer.

The Pittsburgh Promise is trying to improve the college-going culture in Pittsburgh by reporting studies that college education is the critical pathway to a higher income and quality of life for students (Pittsburgh Promise, 2008). For PPS students, college can open up the door to higher lifetime earnings potential. Equally important, for Pittsburgh officials, is increasing the number of Pittsburgh students who earn college degrees benefits the overall economy in the region. Yet, on average in 2010, the district average of students eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise is 59.1%.

When A+ Schools (2011) examined race and socioeconomic factors and its relationship to college readiness indicators, they found that 76.7% of European American students qualified while only 43.4% of African American students and 48.8% of low-income students qualified for the Pittsburgh Promise. Carey Harris (2009), the A+ Schools executive director, states, “We are particularly concerned by the persistent racial achievement disparity, especially in our high schools, and the implications for student readiness for job training and college and eligibility for the Pittsburgh Promise,” She continues. “Too few black students are eligible. We need to rectify that.”

One of the achievements that the Pittsburgh Promise has claimed to raise is the achievement of PPS students. Yet, Ralph Bangs of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Race and Social Problems and other scholars show that merit aid programs like the Pittsburgh Promise have little effect on achievement (Bangs et al, 2011). College enrollment increases are primarily seen among students who are already college-ready and prepared. Also, the Pittsburgh Promise has not stopped declines in public school enrollment or city population nor reduced poverty and racial disparities (Bangs et al, 2011). 

Dr. Bangs et al. (2011) states, “A sticking point for many people is whether high school graduates with less than a 2.5 or 2.0 GPA should go to college and receive a Promise-type scholarship. Actually, the majority of these graduates (including low-skill African American graduates) already enroll in college. Further, when open admission is combined with free college tuition, academic support, and many years to complete college, the results can be astounding. For example, the number of African American graduates of four-year colleges can more than double.” Full-tuition universal programs are seen as causing more improvements than merit aid scholarships (Bangs et al, 2011). Yet, the best way to overcome the achievement/opportunity gap between African American and European American students are comprehensive educational services like the Harlem Children’s Zone.

One major factor for the gaps is misinformation or a lack of information about college could have important implications for college access. One of the recommendations from Gonzalez’s study of the early indicators of the Pittsburgh Promise was to use multiple methods to provide information to students about the college and federal financial-aid application process, particularly younger students (Gonzalez et al, 2011). Differences in awareness across groups may also provide some answers as to why enrollment rates differ by background. If college-going is perceived as unattainable by students, parents, and counselors, then individuals may not choose to prepare academically for college-level work.

Research suggests the college admission process is most successful when it is easy to understand and efforts are made to inform students about the potential benefits. This has also been found in the examinations of other social programs (ACSFA, 2001, 2002, 2006; Bangs et al, 2006; Bangs et al., 2011; CollegeBoard, 2007; Long, 2008; Gonzalez et al., 2011; Wei and Horn, 2002). Currie (2004) finds that the take-up rates on social programs are increased when eligible participants are automatically enrolled and administrative barriers are reduced. 1) Using federal financial aid programs as a primary policy tool, the federal government must renew the nation’s commitment to a broad access strategy.  2) Restoring the access partnership that once existed between the federal, state, and local government, school districts, community organizations, businesses, and higher education institutions. The impact of federal, state, local, district, and institutional initiatives and programs can be greatly enhanced through effective partnerships that ensure that minority students are financially and academically supported throughout the education pipeline.

For the sake of students, stakeholders in our educational system must organize partnerships for an equitable educational structure and admission process. Then, we can achieve equality. Every education scholar has his/her own opinions but there are common themes of school reform, such as democratic education, which have affected our ideas of education and the role of the educator. Therefore, it is our duty as educators to provide strategic alliances across differences. Unfortunately, there are opponents to diversity: 2012 Republican candidate Rick Santorum has commented that diversity creates conflict. This is true but diversity is not the conflict. The similarities among people are in shared acts such as overcoming conflict and struggles for equality. Therefore, diversity can be celebrated in spite of the challenges because diversity is much more than conflict.  It’s about educating for freedom and opportunity. This can be done through a local, state, and national strategic college access plan. Diversity takes open communication so that the school staff/faculty, students, parents, and greater community are aware of the proposed initiatives and programs for access and equality.

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