Higher education: the engine driving upward mobility

Higher education: the engine driving upward mobility

By Chrissy Coley on Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Our higher education system is considered a jewel internationally, but too few students are completing and too many are shouldering hefty debt. So what’s on the horizon to change?

I just returned from the fifth annual New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference in New York, and the topic that really dominated the conversation was the notion of upward mobility—especially in light of the fact that the median income fell last year. According to the New York Times The Upshot editor, David Leonhardt, “Education is the single best solution that we have to a problematic economy.” Although unemployment rates are significantly less and lifetime earnings are significantly higher for adults with a bachelors or associate’s degree, too many people view higher education as a luxury good.

5 million

So colleges and universities have to clear a hurdle—help more students graduate. Two key strategies that might make that happen: access and affordability. Although there’s no one model for making it easier for more students to earn the credentials they need to launch into a successful career or pursue post-graduate study, institutions across the nation are experimenting with some very creative solutions. Here are five key trends explored at the Schools for Tomorrow event to enable opportunity and access:

  1. Offer free community college for high school students with a B average and create clear transfer pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions
  2. Encourage high-achieving, low-income students to enroll at selective colleges and universities and provide the academic support, peer mentoring, financial support, and cultural capital that they especially need to be successful
  3. Create high-touch systems that identify when students are about to go off track, intervene early, and help them earn their credentials as quickly as possible
  4. Revamp the higher education system for 21st century jobs and critical thinking skills

falling behind

Higher education is the one avenue where investments have resulted in social and economic mobility. That college degree is still the best gateway for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to transform their economic circumstances. In today’s climate of rising inequality and low social mobility, higher education opens the door to opportunity. So how do higher education institutions improve the quality of and access to education? According to the State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, “We have to be smarter about what works, use evidence-based strategies, focus on proven initiatives, and take these to scale to make them accessible to all.”

If the new goals are free, fast, and efficient degree completion, what used to work may no longer be relevant. But how can you free up precious resources to focus on the challenges at hand? Leonhard suggests college and university leaders ask, “What can we stop doing?” in order to design sustainable, innovative models for moving students out of failure and driving social mobility.

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