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Policy Implications

Based on the preceding discussion, a policy agenda to expand opportunities of disadvantaged Americans to build more labor market skills would include the following goals:

• improve completion rates at twoand four-year colleges;

• expand postsecondary options that have labor market value; and

• develop additional and alternative pathways to skill-building and work experience through expanding high-quality CTE and work-based learning

Improving College Completion Rates

Perhaps the best thing we could do to improve college completion rates for disadvantaged students would be to improve their academic preparation in the K-12 years. An enormous research and policy literature already exists on this topic, to which I can add relatively little. But it is clear that any such policies need to emphasize both equity and accountability, with more resources going to poor students and communities and strong performance incentives guiding their use. This can be accomplished with stronger curricula (which could be encouraged through widespread implementation of the Common Core and its Next Generation Science Standards), teacher professional development, and incentives based on teacher performance in salary determination, along with higher compensation for strong teachers in math and science and in segregated or high-poverty areas. [1] High school reforms that are modeled on successes like the Small Schools of Choice in New York, along with other dropout prevention efforts (Balfanz 2010), would help as well.

Given their K-12 performance, increasing the access of disadvantaged students to better colleges and universities would clearly improve their education and employment outcomes. One way to do so would be to provide better information on college choice to high school students as they prepare to apply for college. The evidence to date indicates that even small and low-cost improvements in disseminating information among such students can improve the quality of the colleges to which they apply (Hoxby and Turner 2014). Merely requiring all students to take the ACT exam can generate more information about college quality for these students, which ultimately increases enrollments at better colleges (Goodman 2013; Hyman 2013). Changes in recruitment practices, with flagship and elite colleges reaching out to more disadvantaged students and/or those in poorer neighborhoods, would help as well.

Once disadvantaged students apply more frequently to better colleges, they might also be given better chances of being accepted in the admissions process— through some adjustment of the relative weights applied to traditional academic performance measures (like grades and especially standardized test scores) versus disadvantaged backgrounds and other measures of merit and character (Bowen et al. 2005, 2009). To some extent, this is happening already, as the flagship public universities feel pressure to adjust their affirmative action admissions policies; though the Supreme Court has not yet fully struck-down race-based admissions policies, it has clearly indicated it regards them as its least preferred method of increasing diversity on campuses. [2] Using familyor place-based measures of disadvantaged in place of race in admissions decisions will likely generate student bodies with somewhat lower representation of Blacks and Hispanics but higher representation of low-income and disadvantaged students of all races (Long 2004).

Of course, another way of improving the access of disadvantaged students to better-resourced colleges and universities would be to redistribute public resources more equitably between flagship and nonflagship schools. The evidence suggests that state higher education subsidies may be regressive, given the greater generosity most state legislatures show to their flagship schools (though the exact evidence depends on the range of public resources that are included in the calculations). [3] Of course, these legislatures tend to believe that the flagships contribute more to state economic development, and their alumni tend to be well represented among (or influential with) state legislators, making any such redistribution very hard to achieve.

Still, we spend nearly $200 billion of public funds each year on higher education in America, and perhaps those funds could be spent more efficiently and generate a stronger set of academic outcomes. For one thing, a range of supports provided to improve academic outcomes are in need of some reform. These include financial aid, developmental (or remedial) education, tutoring/coaching, and the formation of learning communities.

Individual financial aid can come from the federal government in the form of Pell grants, loans, and/or work study; the institutions themselves also provide such aid. The research evidence suggests that simplicity and transparency increase student access to aid, while conditioning continuation of the aid (at least to some extent) on satisfactory academic outcomes (for example, through merit scholarships) improves performance incentives and outcomes (Dynarski and Scott-Clayton 2007; Patel et al. 2013). [4] A set of Pell grant reforms have been suggested recently based on these principles (College Board 2013a; Baum and Scott-Clayton 2013). Student loans, which have recently become more burdensome to students who drop out of college or have some difficulty finding well-paying jobs after graduating, could also be made less burdensome by moving repayments to an income-contingent basis, among other reforms (Akers and Chingos 2014). [5] And even providing assistance to low-income parents as they fill out financial aid forms seems to help (Bettinger et al. 2012).

The methods by which two-year and four-year colleges choose students for remediation, and then deliver it, are greatly in need of reform (Long 2014). Students are often required, for instance, to pass Algebra I, though this math is not necessary for the occupational degree in question, or they are required to pass other exams that are often shown to be unrelated to subsequent student performance in for-credit classes (Scott-Clayton 2012). [6] In its current form, the provision of remediation generally has little positive effect on academic outcomes of students or even negative effects (Clotfelter et al. 2013). [7]

Accordingly, reforms that would accelerate remediation and integrate it into teaching or training classes would likely be successful (Bettinger et al. 2013). One such model, the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program in the state of Washington, has generated strong outcomes and is regarded as a promising (though expensive) alternative to standalone remediation (Zeidenberg et al. 2010). Delivery of remediation could also be made more effective by accelerating it and better integrating it into labor market training or information.

The provision of a range of other supports—such as childcare or other income supports—can be made more accessible by programs like “Single Stop,” which applies the one-stop concept of service delivery at college (often two-year) campuses. Mandatory participation of students in counseling or support classes has shown some benefits, as has “coaching” more in general (Bettinger et al. 2012). Requiring students to attend class full time while giving a generous package of income and other supports (as done in Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, at the City University of New York), can improve program completion rates as well (Scrivener and Weiss 2013).

  • [1] See, for instance, the report by the Equity and Excellence Commission (U.S. Department of Education 2012b; Duncan and Murnane 2014; Chetty et al. 2011.
  • [2] In its most recent ruling on affirmative action in higher education admissions, in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court affirmed that race could be used as one of many factors to generate a diverse student body, but only if it had exhausted all other potential remedies and found them to fail in generating such diversity.
  • [3] See Hansen and Weisbrod (1969) for the beginning of a longstanding argument on the regressive nature of state subsidies to higher education, and Johnson (2005) for evidence that these subsidies are more income-neutral when we also consider the progressive nature of the state taxes that finance them.
  • [4] On the other hand, Cohodes and Goodman (2014) show evidence that generous merit scholarships to in-state public university students can actually reduce the quality of the institution they attend, thus reducing college completion rates as well.
  • [5] Susan Dynarski, “What We Mean When We Say Student Debt Is Bad.” New York Times, August 8, 2014.
  • [6] While math proficiency generally and skill in algebra specifically (Holzer and Lerman 2014a) seem to contribute to one's earnings, there is much less evidence that proficiency in algebra contributes to success in completing community college or to the earnings of these students. Long (2014) argues that literacy might be more foundational for these students in terms of their ability to complete college classes.
  • [7] Negative effects might occur, for instance, if students have only limited time or financing for higher education and such time is consumed in non-credit-generating remediation rather than credit-accumulation in real courses.
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