It is in a way appropriate that the higher education space mirrors and also reveals the broader challenges faced by the society of the day. After all universities are a gateway to free thought, rigorous debate, airing of differences, not to mention the phase-of-life where most people discover their emerging political and social consciousness. Over the decades university campuses have been pivotal points of protest for political challenge and greater social equality.

Given this perspective it is perhaps only natural that critics aim very many daggers at higher education decrying everything from its overt neo-liberal ideals, to its inflexibility and traditionalism, exclusivity, colonial or even imperialist tendencies. It is correct that higher education remains under scrutiny, invoked to continuously self-asses its purpose, and its approach to ensuring freedom of thought as well as its more pragmatic purpose of supplying society with thoughtful and skilled leaders better able, perhaps than previous generations, to face and resolve the very many challenges we face as a global society and planet.

It’s not easy to be a higher education institution, considering the many challenges universities face; we know most of them all too well:

  • Skyrocketing costs that lead to exclusivity and lack of access
  • Declining completion rates
  • Growing privatization
  • Changing curricula and teaching methods

You may argue that there are many more granular issues at play such as the role of campuses in enhancing civic life or how corporate money influences scientific and other publication. But for today, I’ll focus on the first of the four mentioned (followed by the other three soon) and maybe we can explore these more controversial topics in a later post.

In addition I’d like not to focus on the issue, but have found I think are great examples of universities practicing unique solutions to the issues.

Skyrocketing costs of a university education

The figures for college tuition prices are impressive, but not in a positive way. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year amounts to $34,699 at private colleges, $9,528 for state residents at public colleges and $21,632 for out-of-state students at state schools

In-state tuition prices among public National Universities grew by 65 percent over a 10-year period from 2007-2008, and approximately 40 percent of students turned down their first-choice college because of financial concerns.

So where to for novel, inventive, incisive solutions?

The first problem is that the College Board and ACT do not, or in some cases, are not, permitted to inquire after a student’s household income. On the occasions that they do, only 38% of students are prepared, or able, to answer. This means that no-one really knows how many ivy-league qualifying (read top 10 percentile of SAT scores) students there in fact are, across the board.

A genre-busting study in 2008 laid bare a number of remarkable facts that have subsequently led to a single intervention that is boosting applications and admissions from under-funded, but highly qualified students. The study, by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, looked at every senior in high school in 2008. Using an exhaustive (and exhausting) block-by-block census analysis they managed to attach income, geographic and socioeconomic data to every single student. They discovered that:

  • Nearly 35,000 low-income kids had scores and grades in the top 10 percentile
  • More than 80 percent of them didn’t apply to a single selective institution

This spoke less to the facilities and programs available at elite colleges, but more to a lack of geographic diversity when those colleges sought out low-income high-performers, tending to source students from one or other specific school, year in year out. The solution Hoxby and Avery came up with was to send qualifying students, across the country, a bespoke packet of information about college scholarships, attached to a batch of vouchers that would pay for the admission fees (sometimes as high as $75). As a consequence of receiving the packets students applied to more, and better colleges, and naturally rates of acceptance also went up. Read the full story here.

Keep an eye on the NEO Blog

Tune in next time for a closer look at innovative approaches that are addressing declining completion rates in higher education.

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