Thursday, June 23, 2011

Making Our Investments Count

In a few weeks my research team will release findings from our ongoing study of need-based financial aid, as we host a conference on Affordability and Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education. Preparing for this event has given me the chance to think more about the things colleges and universities might do to maximize the substantial investments federal and state governments--and taxpayers--make in college students.

In particular, I propose that institutions begin to leverage their existing resources-- namely, their faculty-- to support the neediest students, those who enter with a low probability of success. While some might argue those students simply shouldn't be admitted, I take a different stance: given the labor market returns to college degrees and the widespread ambitions for college, it's incumbent upon higher education institutions to get "student-ready" -- rather than simply demanding that students get "college-ready."

I hope to begin writing about this concept of "student-ready" colleges from time to time over the coming months, but let's start with two ideas for how it could work.

(1) The Chronicle of Higher Education today highlights a program that assigned retired faculty to mentor first-generation students. Love this-- it's a win-win for all involved. Students without college-educated parents gain the benefits of having a college-educated "grandparent" of sorts who has not only attended but succeeded in college and worked at one!

(2) Here's an idea of my own. Policymakers should experiment with a new program to provide colleges and universities with incentives to place Pell Grant recipients in contact with faculty. Student-faculty interactions have been shown to enhance retention rates, and they are less common among low-income, first-generation students. A work-study type program could be a starting approach, but typical work-study jobs are located in cafeterias and libraries where students cannot form new connections with their educators. This approach should enhance the effectiveness of financial aid by supplementing it with increased faculty interaction. The federal government could begin with a trial effort using funds from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. The effort should be rigorously evaluated and used to inform future revisions of financial aid programs.

For sure, many faculty are overworked as it is. These kinds of things won't work everywhere and under all conditions. But let's say we tried them at four-year universities first. I'm willing to bet that even with uneven quality of mentoring, the effects on some students would be large enough as to raise persistence rates. The mentors will also benefit, and perhaps become advocates for these students and the programs that serve them. Student contact reminds us why we got into this biz in the first place, energizes us, and grounds us. We should be urged and rewarded for focusing that contact where it's most needed.

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