The LEAP Challenge Blog

Upward Mobility through Higher Education: Can We Get Back on Track?

Education has long been held up as the key to upward mobility in America, but last month saw the release of two reports suggesting that while college has become crucial for economic success, it may be harder than ever for Americans who are living in poverty to gain the kind of education that will help them improve their circumstances.

 On August 17, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) released a new report titled Good Jobs Are Back: College Graduates Are First in Line. The report shows that more than 40 percent of the jobs added to the economy during the recovery from the great recession have been high-wage jobs, most of which carry employer-sponsored insurance and retirement benefits.  The vast majority of these jobs are held by workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher. In fact, most of the jobs created since the end of recession, even middle- and low-wage jobs, have gone to workers with at least some college education, while workers with no college education are confined to low-wage jobs—or don’t have jobs at all. CEW has published the full report online, or you can read a summary of some of the key figures in the latest issue of AAC&U’s newsletter.

Keep those figures in mind when reading Single Moms and Welfare Woes: A Higher-Education Dilemma, published on the Atlantic’s website the day after the CEW report was released. Amanda Freeman, who teaches sociology at a number of institutions in Connecticut, details some of the obstacles to college completion faced by Americans who rely on public assistance, especially single mothers.  Attending college is particularly difficult for those who are balancing work and child care, and while low-income single parents can apply for cash assistance and child care vouchers, such aid is contingent on proof of hours worked. Unfortunately, college classes don’t count as “work” in most states. Vocational training can count toward work credit, but only for up to one year, meaning those who are pursuing four-year degrees are effectively ineligible for public assistance as long as their primary pursuit is higher education.

As Freeman notes, single-parents now make up 26 percent of the country’s undergraduate student population. But they are also the largest demographic group living below the poverty line, and taken together, these reports suggest it will be very difficult for these students to complete the college degrees that could help them achieve economic security. A four-year college degree has become practically a requirement to obtain a stable, high-paying job, but for those who don’t already have such jobs, or family benefactors who do, there is very little public assistance to help them complete the education they need to acquire the sort of jobs that lead to economic security.

And of course, success after college is a not just a matter of attending and completing college, but being able to fully engage in one’s education and develop high-level skills. AAC&U’s surveys of employers have demonstrated that business leaders expect the graduates they hire to have superior communication skills, the ability to work in teams with diverse groups of people, and the ability to solve unscripted problems. 

So then: How do we ensure that college is accessible to Americans of all backgrounds, income levels, and family demographics? How do we ensure that all students persist in college, and that they are able to learn the knowledge and skills that they’ll need to succeed in the workplace and in their lives? Freeman’s article suggests a number of public policy changes that could make it easier for low-income Americans to enroll in college. But what can we do within higher education to ensure that once these students enroll they persist and learn at the same rate as their peers from more advantaged backgrounds?

AAC&U has dedicated its Centennial Year to an exploration of the importance of both equity and quality in undergraduate education to ensure all students’ long-term flourishing and success—especially those students from groups traditionally underserved by our educational systems.  As part of this focus, we’ve developed a set of resources to advance the equity imperative and are holding a series of forums to discuss these issues.

 America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education is a deep dive into the research on student success, including college completion and educational opportunity, and provides frameworks and principles for evaluating equity and advancing institutional change. Step Up and Lead for Equity presents data about the societal imperative for equity and access to quality learning. Alongside Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence, a companion guide for self-study and planning, Step Up and Lead can help campuses develop action plans to advance inclusive excellence and bring together work for advancing equity and high-quality learning.

AAC&U is continuing these discussions about the equity imperative in a series of Centennial Forums, including an upcoming event in New York City on November 17 focused on bringing together equity and quality, and a final Centennial Forum, “The LEAP Challenge and the Equity Imperative,” immediately preceding AAC&U’s Annual Meeting on January 20.

Fighting entrenched inequality is a long-term challenge, and making our campuses fully equitable learning spaces will require cooperation from policy makers and others outside of academe.  It’s precisely because these challenges are so great that we hope many of you will join us in these discussions about how to ensure all students succeed in college and beyond.