As the president of ASU – Arizona State University – I’d like to take exception to that line on behalf of the many universities that maintain high academic standards but don’t burnish their reputations based on the number of students they can exclude.
This exclusivity-obsessed mindset in U.S. higher education is an unproductive and subversive force that increasingly afflicts the attitudes of parents and colleges. The scandal has made me more confident than ever that ASU and other institutions similarly committed to excellence and access are on the right track in challenging the mentality that animated Varsity Blues.
Though small and elite colleges have their roles, higher education is too important for individual and social progress to be held hostage to exclusivity thinking. A college education is a reliable and consistent catalyst for social mobility, the bedrock of the American dream. But the great paradox of higher education is that family income remains the greatest predictor of whether one goes on to complete a college degree.
Court records in the Varsity Blues scandal confirmed what many had long suspected: Some colleges, when considering prospective students, systematically take into account the wealth and gift capacity of applicants’ parents. That is unfortunate for students, communities and the nation as a whole. Elite universities do admit some low-income students and focus on their needs, even sometimes providing tuition-free educations, but the number of students who stand to benefit from financial aid is small.
Closing the achievement gap between equally capable students from lower- and higher-income families requires rethinking the way universities bring in students from all backgrounds and ensure that family income is not a predictor of college success. And we must do this at scale. Meaningful progress on that front can be made with creative solutions such as those being put into practice by the 11 institutions of the University Innovation Alliance, including Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University and ASU.
Members of the alliance have implemented a variety of approaches to try to improve degree completion rates for low-income students. The University of California at Riverside has created a network of instructional and support resources for first-generation students, those whose parents do not have four-year degrees, who make up 58 percent of its students. The University of Central Florida increased freshman retention to more than 90 percent by reaching out to students who did not re-enroll after their first year to help them resolve academic, financial or personal difficulties that might have prompted them not to continue. And several universities in the alliance, including Iowa State University, the University of Kansas and Georgia State University, offer completion grants to seniors who are at risk of dropping out because of financial difficulties.
At ASU, the enrollment of first-year students from families making less than $60,000 per year has increased by 282 percent — greatly aided by the federal Pell Grant program — since we started making changes in 2002. The university now enrolls 4,498 of these students, which is more than 2.5 times larger than the entire Harvard University freshman class. The overall ASU undergraduate student population has increased from 46,000 in 2002 to more than 100,000 across six campuses today.
If the Varsity Blues scandal has one bright side, it may be that now more Americans — and more institutions of higher learning — are skeptical of the exclusivity mindset. Higher education is a powerful engine for individual and social progress. Universities would do well to measure themselves not by the number of students they exclude, but by the students they include and how those young people go on to succeed.