Some colleges have adapted to today's challenges, enrolling and graduating low-income students at above average rates. Here's what we can take away from the success stories to provide better education solutions to more low-income Americans.

When my grandfather came to this country, he barely spoke English, but he was able to get a good enough education that allowed him to compete in the economy at the time and land a good enough job to support and build his family. That was the intent and promise of the American education system from the start, but that system has lost its way.

For many Americans, especially those of color and from low-income families, the education that you get today is simply not good enough to compete in the current globalized economy. The result is a K-12 system that has produced 6.7 million young people, who neither finish nor can find work. Of those that do finish high school, many don’t continue on for additional certification or earn incomes often 30-40% of the average median.

Students with High School Degrees Can’t Find Work

6.7 Million The number of U.S. Youth who cannot find work with a high school degree or less.

But as the results of the New York Times College Access Index found, some colleges (but, unfortunately too few) have adapted to today’s challenges and are able to successfully educate and graduate low income students. The New York Times piece further convinced me that we need to focus urgently on three things:

1. Holding College and University Leaders Accountable for These Results

The Index ranks colleges based on three factors: colleges that graduate 75% or more of their students, their share of students receiving federal financial aid typically going to families making less than $70,000, and net cost after financial aid. This year, six of the top seven colleges were from the University of California system – with UC Irvine enrolling 40% of its freshman class from low income families. However, the top 20 performers were varied – large and small, urban and rural, private and public, well-endowed and not. The one seemingly common characteristic among them was willingness to make this goal a reality. As the Times stated, “the diversity [of successful institutions] suggests that economic diversity is within the power of any top university”. We need to hold college leaders accountable for these results and we’re not.

Freshman from Low-Income Families

40% The percent of students enrolled in the UC Irvine 2014 freshman class who came from low income families.

2. Understanding That the Scope of the Problem will Require an Extraordinary Effort by Public Colleges and Universities

A key reason why we need to hold college leaders accountable for these results is the scope of the challenge. Arizona State President Michael Crow compellingly notes that just to achieve a 50% college attainment rate by 2020, we would have to produce 480,000 additional bachelor’s degrees a year. For context, all the Ivy League schools and the 50 top liberal arts schools together produce fewer than 40,000 degrees a year with only 15% from low income families. That’s why we need our public universities and colleges to get dramatically better results. Crow notes that if all public four year schools increased their college completion rates by 25%, they would add almost 300,000 new degrees a year. That’s would make a huge dent.

Potential Degrees

300,000 degrees The number of new degrees that would be granted if all public four year schools increased their college completion rates by 25%.

Like the leaders highlighted in the College Access Index, some public universities are leading the way. Institutions, like State University of New York, Arizona State University and the University of Central Florida, are building capacity to serve more students. They are guaranteeing admission to local community college graduates and more students are entering every fall as transfers than as freshman. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher says of the effort, “On the horizon is this massive expectation that we are going to educate more people, we’re going to educate a much more diverse population, a global population. And it’s time. It’s high time.”

3. Focusing on Competencies and Engaging Private Employers

Part of that course correction also requires a more aggressive move towards preparing people with the competencies that employers really want and need. The United States is currently suffering a major jobs-to-skills mismatch. A recent study found that only 33% of business leaders believe that universities are effectively preparing students for the workforce. This is in stark contrast to 96% of college and university chief academic officers who believe that their institutions prepared students effectively for the workforce. This July, when job openings had reached an all-time high, 17 million Americans were unemployed and seeking work. Who’s right? In my mind, it’s not even a close call. The data tells us that the system is not working.

No Confidence in Graduate Competencies

67% The percent of business leaders who do not believe that universities are effectively preparing students for work.

We need to move away from traditional models and towards a competency based approach that focuses on skills that employers want and that they help build.. This kind of system would place college- and career-ready standards as the foundation for students to master. Google, who many consider the employer of tomorrow’s workforce, already hires using a competency-based approach, stating on their website, “We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts, and more interested in how you think.” Efforts like those that are part of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions are trailblazing this type of work but it needs to be made the norm, not the oft-cited exception.

A recent Eduardo Porter column on the growing education gap between rich and poor powerfully summarized the challenge:

“Fifty years ago, the black-white proficiency gap was one and a half to two times as large as the gap between a child from a family at the top 90th percentile of the income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile. Today, the proficiency gap between the poor and the rich is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children. In other words, even as one achievement gap narrowed, another opened wide. That kind of progress could dash one’s hope in the leveling power of education. It should drive us to action now in the way that the civil rights movement did in the 1970’s.”

We know how to fix this problem. Our failure to provide an education for everyone that is good enough for the 21st century does not have to be an American narrative.

Photo: UC Irvine Commencement 2014, by UCI UC Irvine. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.