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“I have expensive dreams.” Preparing students for college and career in the face of widening equity gaps

Expensive dreams

Eraste Talla Ngoualadjo always planned on attending a four-year university in the United States. But when his family emigrated from Cameroon to Boston in 2022, they were astounded by the high cost of even the country’s public universities. “I didn’t know about the reality of affording college here,” Ngoualadjo says. “It’s just a tremendous amount of money.”

Ngoualadjo, then 17, reconsidered his plans, opting to start at the much more affordable, two-year Bunker Hill Community College where, between grants and federal aid, he pays nothing in tuition and fees. He will graduate from Bunker Hill later this year and hopes to transfer to a private university like Northeastern or Boston University—if he can afford it. “I have expensive dreams,” Ngoualadjo says.

Last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, bringing a halt to decades of race-conscious college admissions, the move raised grave concerns about equity of access to America’s higher education institutions. Simultaneously, a growing and disconcerting set of research shows that even before the high court’s decision, the pandemic had already caused racial and socioeconomic gaps in college attendance and persistence to widen, thwarting or delaying the ambitions of students like Ngoualadjo. These tandem developments underscore that without urgent and significant reform, the student population at four-year colleges especially could become dramatically whiter and wealthier, shaping equality of opportunity in America for generations to come.

“The story is one of widening inequality,” says Patrick Denice, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario and author of a new Center on Reinventing Public Education report uncovering growing racial and socioeconomic gaps in college attendance and persistence.

Based largely on data from Rhode Island, where the student demographics are similar to those of New England as a whole, Denice found that while the pandemic precipitated declining college matriculation across racial and ethnic groups, particularly in 2020, those drops were especially severe for Black and Hispanic students. For instance, the gap in college attendance between Hispanic and white students jumped from 11 percentage points in 2019 to more than 17 percentage points in 2020. By 2021, it had reached 19 percentage points.

Even among students who continued to enroll in college, Denice found signs of growing inequality in the types of institutions they chose: Black and Hispanic students became more likely to attend community colleges and less likely to opt for public four-year institutions. Meanwhile, white students saw a related shift from private universities to public ones. 

“These trends suggest that the costs associated with attending college and university mattered to students and their families—particularly to those from less advantaged and underrepresented backgrounds,” wrote Denice.

Cost was definitely the deciding factor for Ngoualadjo, who hopes that enough financial aid and grant funding will now come through to allow him to transfer in the fall to a private four-year university as a “sophomore-plus” or junior-year student. He’s been working with uAspire, which supports students in accessing financial aid, to maximize his chances. “In a worst-case scenario, if I have to rely on federal aid, I don’t think it will be enough” on its own, he says. Ngoualadjo, who hopes to study economics and computer science, has seen peers from underrepresented backgrounds scale back their ambitions, at least temporarily, for similar reasons.

College access gaps are widening in spite of the fact that high school graduation rates held steady in Rhode Island and several other states during the pandemic, says Denice. Indeed, his research suggests that high school completion and course-taking may have had less to do with the college enrollment dropoff than broader socioeconomic factors, including the unique nature of the economic downturn during the pandemic and growing inequality. “We think of the pandemic in part as an economic crisis,” he says, “but the patterns of post-secondary enrollment are really different than what we’ve seen in other recessions.” In prior recessions, including in 2008-09, college and graduate school enrollment rates increased partly because of a dearth of job opportunities for early-career workers. Usually, “we see increases in college and university enrollment when students look to education as a safe haven against terrible economic conditions,” Denice says. “We might have expected something similar here, but it’s quite the opposite.”

Yet, Denice also examined some school-related factors. Student absenteeism was strongly related to a dropoff in college enrollment. The falloff was much greater between the pool of students who were chronically absent in 2018 and in 2021 than their peers. The report also homed in on the extent to which taking high school calculus—a course long associated with college preparation and ambition—served as a “protective” factor for different racial and socioeconomic groups in deterring a dropoff in college enrollment. It proved far more protective for white students than Black and Hispanic ones: Specifically, white students who took calculus showed no drop off in college enrollment rates between 2018 and 2021, but the decline for the latter two groups was 8 and 9 percentage points, respectively.

Widening disparities and the ebb of “college for all”

Samantha Charlot, a high school senior in Boston, is in a similar position as Ngoualadjo: waiting to hear if she can afford to attend a university in the fall. “I’m worried about the money aspect,” she said. For this reason, she applied to community colleges as well. The 18-year-old wishes that colleges notified students of their financial aid packages before the expected March timeline. She says the late notice puts students like her, who have to count every dollar and need time to plan and negotiate, at a disadvantage.

Charlot has long planned to attend college, but she wishes high schools devoted more time and resources to exposing students to potential careers. She took one career-focused class on health care but wishes she’d had opportunities to explore her fields of interest: criminology and psychology. “My friends struggle with choosing a career path that fits them,” she says. 

As Charlot’s dual priorities illustrate, an underexplored dichotomy complicates the narrative around post-secondary access and priorities. At the same time that disparities are widening, we’re in the midst of an attitudinal shift around the value of high school career planning and the importance of college in pursuing an economically sustainable career—and leading a happy, productive life. 

Some of the “college-for-all” aspirations that defined many high school reform efforts and societal thinking through the 2000s began to ebb before the pandemic, point out Chelsea Waite and Maddy Sims in “A ‘good life’ for every student: High schools embrace many pathways to success,” released by CRPE and the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) last month. 

During over 200 interviews at six New England high schools that served as the focal point for the report, students, caregivers, and educators described some of the motivations for the shift. “Kids are starting to realize that, wait a second, college is very expensive. And if I don’t know what I want to do, then all I’m doing is spending money,” said one teacher at a majority lower-income and Hispanic high school. An administrator at another high school remarked: “At one point, people defined success by college. And I think that people have come to realize now that’s not the ultimate measure of success.”

One student opined, “I think [my school] could focus less on university … and more [on helping] families and other students learn how to research all their options. … A lot of students will go into career paths or something that they were just constantly exposed to as a kid.”

At first glance, these two disparate trends may seem to present a subtle tension: Should we prioritize supporting students in exploring pathways other than college? Or should we focus on pushing back against increased barriers to college access? This tension is a distraction, however, from the ways that marginalized students and families have historically been disempowered from choosing and pursuing their own best path after high school; it’s a right that white, wealthier students have long taken for granted. The either-or between college and career is one that we tend to obsess over only in the context of marginalized students.

There have been notable changes in practice even at some of the most ardent proponents of the college-for-all mission, to ensure marginalized students have access to a full range of post-secondary choices. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network of more than 250 charter schools, serving mostly lower-income students, has long advertised a goal of sending its predominantly first-generation students to and through college. 

While college preparation and persistence remain a central part of the KIPP philosophy and practice, in 2020, the charter network rebranded its college readiness program as KIPP Forward, one focusing on college and career readiness. “As opposed to automatically pushing every student into bachelor’s programs where they may not finish and may leave with debt, each pathway is supported,” says Ajuah Helton, the vice president overseeing KIPP Forward. She says college readiness remains the “gold standard,” but education is now seen as the means to a career aspiration. “Each pathway is supported,” Helton says, adding that the network has done significant research, for instance, on the most high-quality career and technical education programs for students who have that goal. 

Some high schools of all types are, like KIPP, increasingly trying to prepare students for post-graduate pathways distinct from college. Waite and Sims found examples of administrators asking students to take a career-oriented class prior to graduation, hosting workforce roundtables featuring local employers, and opening new career centers.

“Students told us they needed their schools to help them understand how different…pathways can shape and define adult life,” the authors wrote. “In all our case study schools, educators sought to ensure every student had a plan for after graduation, but felt increasingly accepting of plans that didn’t involve higher education.” 

Dual priorities: alternate pathways AND college success

High schools cannot tackle these issues on their own without a broader commitment from higher education to take aggressive steps to preserve access in the face of new legal complications and significantly increased support for students of color and first-generation students.

In the face of some grim statistics and disturbing trends, we have an opportunity to recommit to college access, but not in the top-down, across-the-board style that dominated some pre-pandemic high school reform efforts. It’s easy to misinterpret a slide away from ‘college for all’ as a dampening of ambition, but it’s actually the opposite if done right. It’s a recommitment to supporting students in pursuing “a good life:” allowing them to self-determine a viable, ambitious pathway after graduation. This requires college access efforts to remain as robust as ever but also for high schools to develop new expertise and forms of support as it relates to career planning and preparation. The goal is that both priorities—developing alternate pathways and maximizing college access—become so ingrained in what high schools do that there’s little risk of any student ending up consigned to an insidious either-or. 

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