U.S. Institutions Struggle to Serve Low-Income and Minority Students Amid Government Skepticism

As students and faculty return to college campuses this spring, they face a higher education landscape that is uncertain and volatile — and one that will be forced to grapple with opportunities and obstacles when it comes to meeting the needs of low-income and minority students in 2018.

While these challenges are familiar, recent federal legislation that reflects a growing skepticism of higher education is forcing institutions to find new and creative approaches to serving these student populations. A Gallup poll from August 2017 shows that only 33 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats have confidence in U.S. colleges, with Republicans citing curriculum as a major concern and Democrats citing the high expense of earning a college degree.

However, the federal tax plan passed by Congress in December has the potential to further raise costs— not only because of its tax of some universities’ endowments, but also due to the fact that it limits state and local tax deductions to $10,000. According to Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, this provision could drive citizens to demand that their state lawmakers cut taxes — which he believes would likely target higher education, resulting in a spike in tuition costs.

Responding to increased financial pressure and public criticism that they cater to the wealthy elite, many colleges and universities are adopting new business models that some argue may not serve their intended purpose of attracting low-income and underrepresented students. For example, last fall, Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Calif., adopted a new student finance model called income share agreements (ISAs) in which the university offers money to students in return for a portion of their future earnings. Jessica Thompson, policy and research director at the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success, told The Washington Post that the model is not ideal for low-income students as it will likely add more debt to their already heavy load.

In addition, according to the American Educational Research Association (AERA), colleges and universities are increasingly engaging in tuition discounting, a process by which they lower tuition in return for institutional grant aid for enrolling more students. AERA reports that “almost every four-year private institution used tuition discounting in admissions offers” from 2003-2012. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, however, says that “some colleges rely so heavily on discounting that when they raise their tuition, they do not generate new net revenues, … [which] threatens [their] ability to offer … educational opportunities.”

Many believe that such innovations and experiments show that colleges and universities are desperate to attract new students and maintain their credibility. To truly accomplish this, however, institutions will have to adjust to meet the needs of today’s students — many of whom are nontraditional. According to the Lumina Foundation, 38 percent of undergraduates are above the age of 25, 58 percent work while enrolled, and 26 percent are raising children. Additionally, 42 percent of first-year students live at or below poverty level, and a growing number of today’s college-going population are students of color.

To address these changing demographics, lawmakers introduced the Reverse Transfer Efficiency Act in September. According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the bill would “enable more seamless institution-to-institution reverse credit transfers with full consent,” meaning that students who had to pause their studies due to financial challenges, family obligations, or other issues could more easily pick up where they left off.

Furthermore, Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, recommends that universities directly track data regarding outcomes for students of color, in addition to those for low-income students — which would allow institutions to better tailor their offerings to improve student success. “What we’re not hearing in the conversation around equity is how we’re including or not including race as a component of that,” Pilar told Market Watch.

(photo via Flickr/COD Newsroom)