Higher ed leaders are paying more attention to attainment gaps

'Acknowledgement without a commitment to change our practices will get us nowhere'

Leaders in higher education are becoming more focused on closing attainment gaps, according to a survey from the University of Pennsylvania's (UPenn) Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy. 

Survey participants included members of NASPA and alumni of UPenn's Executive Doctorate program in higher education management. Researchers asked participants about their views regarding college attainment among different groups of students. 

Nearly 80% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that closing gaps in attainment is a greater concern now than a year ago, and 92% agreed or strongly agreed that college leaders should do more to close the gaps.

Respondents said they believed that college leaders are most concerned with improving attainment among:

  • First-time, full-time students (31%);
  • Students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (31%); and
  • Low-income students (14%).

Respondents had mixed views regarding the groups for which college leaders should be more concerned about improving attainment, with the most common responses being:

  • Low-income students (29%);
  • First-generation students (17%); and
  • Students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (17%).

"The survey question that asks which student groups receive the most focus, and which groups should receive more attention to increase attainment, speaks to the challenges we still face in achieving an equity-based mindset for student success and degree completion," says Julie Amon, vice chancellor for undergraduate education and student success at Rutgers University–Camden. "Understanding and recognizing differential degree attainment and the factors that contribute to that is essential, but acknowledgement without a commitment to change our practices will get us nowhere."

Scaling support for underrepresented students

Respondents also had different opinions about why students from higher-income families are more likely to attend college and graduate than their low-income peers:

  • Insufficient academic preparation and readiness for college (49%);
  • Insufficient understanding of reasons for differences in outcomes (16%);
  • High cost/price of college (14%);
  • Insufficient institutional resources (5%);
  • Insufficient institutional leadership (2%);
  • Insufficient political leadership (1%); and
  • Other (13%). 

"Much of the current debate ... concerning the educational attainment of students from low-income backgrounds fails to fully appreciate the magnitude and root causes of the problem," says Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell. "If we want to improve educational attainment, we must first deal with the effects of intergenerational poverty and what it does to those trapped within its grasp because an 'A' education coupled with an 'F' environment seldom yields an 'A' life."

However, 73% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that college leaders have sufficient resources to raise attainment for low-income students. 

Respondents said the following were the most important factors college leaders should focus on to improve attainment for low-income students:

  • College affordability (22%);
  • Formal and informal mentorship (21%);
  • Pathways toward degree attainment (13%);
  • Use of data to inform institutional action (12%);
  • Academic supports (11%);
  • Campus and social engagement opportunities (3%);
  • Academic advising (2%); and
  • Other (16%)

(Penn AHEAD brief, June 2016; Penn AHEAD study, June 2016). 


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