By Michael V. Drake and Daniel R. Porterfield
Franklin & Marshall College and The Ohio State University might seem like an odd couple. After all, F&M is a private liberal arts college serving 2,300 undergraduates, while Ohio State is a public land grant institution with nearly 30 times as many students at all levels.
In fact, however, we both were founded on the premise that education is the great equalizer in a democracy. We both believe that, in America, talent must rise.
Today, however, for many students, that’s become a debatable proposition.
Last summer, Martin Kurzweil of Ithaka S+R nd Josh Wyner of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program studied enrollment trends among the 270 colleges and universities with six-year graduation rates consistently above 70 percent. They found that just 22 percent of the 2.1 million students in these schools qualify for federal Pell grants, which typically go to the lower 40-45 percent of American household incomes.
Talent knows no geography. But the barriers for low-income students to access top higher education institutions can be daunting: it’s too expensive, no one in the family has ever gone to college, or a campus environment doesn’t feel familiar. A deeper commitment by the nation’s top colleges and universities to focus as a collective to attract and support more talent will benefit the nation by unleashing potential, encouraging economic development, increasing the tax base, and accelerating the country’s ability to compete in today’s global knowledge economy.
That’s why Ohio State and Franklin & Marshall are teaming up with 28 other institutions, such as Davidson College and Princeton University, to launch an ambitious national campaign called the American Talent Initiative (ATI).
Our goal, by 2025, is to grow by 50,000 the number of highly qualified low-income students enrolled at up to 270 of America’s top-performing institutions. Collectively, that amounts to a 12 percent increase from the 430,000 Pell grant recipients in those schools now.
Acting alone, none of these institutions could dream of pursuing such a large national goal. That’s the point of the American Talent Initiative. To do something big for America, we must join forces.
Through ATI, each member commits to increase its efforts to recruit, support, educate, graduate and launch lower-income students into trajectories of success. We’ll meet regularly to share what we learn with each other and our peers. Part of the initiative is to publish four research papers a year on topics like financing the growth of need-based aid budgets.
The 30 founding members are very strong academically and quite diverse in other ways. We’re located in 19 states and enroll 350,000 students. We include nine public and 21 private institutions, including members of the Ivy League, state flagships, and top liberal arts colleges. We plan to double the number of partnering institutions by the fall of 2017.
For many reasons, we are convinced that we will reach our 50,000-student goal. Why?
First, because the model invites institutions to take part. Our approach capitalizes on the simple fact that every college in America wants more talent in its student body and aspires to serve our country. ATI is innovative, collaborative, results-oriented and entirely voluntary. Each institution makes the commitment to strive and learn together and we’ll report our collective progress each year.
Second, because the talent is out there. All across this country, in every school and community, there are young people working hard and eager to create their futures, increasingly supported by entities like the College Advising Corps and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ new CollegePoint program. According to the seminal 2013 research by the economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, there are at least 50,000 students per year with 3.5 GPAs and top 10 percent SAT/ACT scores who do not apply to any of these colleges. That’s a phenomenal opportunity.
Third, because the research shows it’s needed. The labor economist Anthony Carnevale projects that, with the retirement of the Baby Boomers, the United States faces a shortage of 5 million college-educated workers – in 2021.
And, this month, a group of Stanford economists led by Raj Chetty shared new data on social mobility showing that only half of today’s 30-somethings earn as much as their parents did at that age, compared to 92 percent of those who came to their financial maturity in the 1970’s.
While many other efforts are needed, too, the American Talent Initiative is one way to make progress on both of these challenges.
Fourth, because many of the founding partners in the American Talent Initiative have already proven that progress is possible. To cite just a few examples, in the last decade, Vassar College has tripled the share of their students who receive Pell grants, and both Amherst College and Pomona College have increased their Pell student enrollment by over 60 percent. Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, the flagship campuses of the University of Texas, the University of North Carolina, the University of Washington, and The Ohio State University collectively added more than 8,300 Pell grant students. Franklin & Marshall has also tripled Pell enrollment since 2008, while increasing the academic depth of the student body.
And, finally, because there’s great value in what diverse institutions can learn from each other. Until ATI, a number of presidents in the initiative had never crossed paths, even though many work on similar issues. As we partner and collaborate on advancing the goals of ATI, we will create and share best practices with partners throughout higher education as well as in the high school system.
The American Talent Initiative will help align higher education with key national priorities. We invite others to join us and learn with us as we enhance the college opportunities and life prospects for at least 50,000 deserving students. Instead of colleges and universities simply competing against one another for market position and prestige, we can compete together to strengthen our country.