For Student Success, Stop Debating and Start Improving
Historically, higher education has fueled social and economic mobility in America. But today that contribution is at risk. Attainment gaps between high- and low-income students have doubled over the past 10 years. Only 9 percent of students from low-income households have earned any postsecondary credentials by the time they are 26, compared with more than 50 percent of students from higher-income households. We must do far more, and with far more speed, than we are doing now to close this gap. If we can ensure that the majority of today’s low-income young adults earn credentials beyond high school, they will qualify for family-supporting jobs and set their children on a path of upward mobility—a powerful way to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
The United States has a long way to go to reach that goal—a problem not just for low-income families but for all of us. Completion rates have stayed stubbornly flat for the past 30 years, despite vastly increased access to higher education and increased spending. While there is promising movement, we are not pursuing change with anywhere near the urgency or focus required to make a real dent in the problem, especially compared with countries that have surpassed us in raising postsecondary completion rates for 25- to 34-year-olds.
My perspective on these issues grows from my work over the past five years leading the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments to improve postsecondary success for low-income students. I have seen up close the multiple challenges that face higher education in these times of budget cuts and increased public concern over the value and cost of college. Yet in my experience, three broad but unproductive areas of debate distract us from solving the central challenges. Here’s what ought to be happening: