Diversity and Access: Go Public!

In How and Why You Diversify Colleges (New York Times, May 15, 2016), Frank Bruni explores the efforts undertaken by some elite private colleges to diversify their student bodies, and the benefits that flow from such diversity. We applaud these efforts, but as Mr. Bruni acknowledges, "socioeconomic diversity at elite colleges is hardly the most vital concern about higher education," because those colleges "serve a small fraction of the country's students."

So, what about public institutions, which educate a much larger proportion of college students, and thus may have a greater impact on college access? Many public institutions, including several in the Mid-Atlantic, have taken important measures to provide access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let’s consider some of these.

Alternative Admission Programs. Some public universities expand access through alternative admission programs for students who may not meet traditional admission requirements but show potential to succeed in college.

Penn State offers two such programs. The Comprehensive Studies Program is offered at the University Park campus and all Commonwealth campuses, and “is an alternate admission program for students who may have academic challenges due to environmental, socioeconomic and disruption issues.” Eligible students are identified based on their applications and advised into the program. When they matriculate, they are required to receive extra advising and counseling to ensure their success.

Some Commonwealth campuses also offer the Pathway to Success: Summer Start, in which admitted students take summer classes before the fall semester, and thus learn how to succeed in college with a reduced course load. Eligible students are identified by their applications and financial information, and are typically Pell-eligible, first-generation minority students. Pennsylvania’s West Chester University offers the Academic Development Program, and New Jersey’s Rowan University has the Rowan Select program, which are similar.

Maryland’s Morgan State University (an HBCU) offers the CASA Academy, in which students must succeed in summer courses to gain admission to the university. The courses enhance college readiness for admitted students, and thus increase their likelihood of success.

Finally, at least two HBCU’s allow students to begin their studies at community college while taking advantage of the universities’ resources. After meeting prescribed academic requirements, the students are fully admitted into the university. Pennsylvania's Lincoln University offers the Bridge to Educational Success and Transition (BEST), in which students take Delaware County Community College courses on Lincoln's campus, live in Lincoln's dorms, and otherwise "have all the privileges afforded to Lincoln students." Morgan State's CONNECT program allows students to take classes at any Maryland community college, and participate in activities and use facilities at the main campus. These include tutoring, the library, and "access to all social and sporting events, concerts, and more.”

With these programs, Lincoln and Morgan State allow students to develop their skills in community college courses while becoming members of the university community, which may overcome some students’ resistance to attending community college.

Test Optional Admission. Some public universities no longer require standardized tests for some or all applicants, which helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford test-prep courses. Many private liberal arts colleges have been test optional for years, but public universities are joining this movement in growing numbers.

These include Philadelphia's Temple University, which adopted the Temple Option for the 2015-16 application season. Applicants may choose to answer essay questions in lieu of submitting standardized test scores. Temple explains that “the Temple Option is part of our commitment to providing talented and motivated students of all backgrounds the opportunity for a high-quality college experience."

More recently, the University of Delaware implemented a four-year pilot program making standardized tests optional for Delaware residents. Nancy Targett, acting University president, said the "University's future is predicated on our commitment to equity and inclusion. We value diverse backgrounds and learning experiences, and this program aligns with that commitment."

Conclusion. We've been impressed by the efforts of public universities to expand access for disadvantaged students, but disappointed that they receive little publicity, and that so few students seem aware of them. Although the universities promote their programs, without support from guidance counselors and others, students may not take advantage of available opportunities. (The White House has recognized this general problem.)

To increase awareness, state higher education systems could publish and disseminate materials summarizing programs designed specifically for low-income state residents. (In partnership with the College Board, Delaware has done something like this.) These could be available online and in pamphlets distributed in high schools. PHEAA, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, produces outstanding materials describing financial aid opportunities for all students, and a similar approach to admission opportunities would help students understand the admission piece of the puzzle.

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