Home Student Persistence Should Elite Universities or Other Universities Enroll a Million Students?
Should Elite Universities or Other Universities Enroll a Million Students?

Should Elite Universities or Other Universities Enroll a Million Students?

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In a recently published article in Forbes, Brandon Busteed makes the provocative statement that elite universities should enroll a million students. Busteed opens his article by writing that the Ivy Plus colleges (the Ivy League plus the University of Chicago, MIT, Stanford, and Duke) produce the highest social mobility success rate, with nearly 60 percent of their students from the bottom quintile of income distribution moving to the top quintile after graduating. (Note: Just 3.8 percent of students from the bottom quintile of income distribution are enrolled at these institutions.)

Busteed adds that SUNY-Stony Brook has nearly four times the social mobility rate of Ivy Plus colleges and enrolls 16.4 percent of its students from the bottom quintile, with 51 percent of them moving into the top quintile. If elite universities enrolled more students from the bottom quintile, Busteed believes that there is no reason to believe that they wouldn’t be able to produce strong social mobility outcomes for these students. (Note: Busteed presents no evidence supporting his opinion.)

Busteed states that higher education has the power to transform lives. He writes that six out of 10 students from the top quartile of socioeconomic status graduate from college while only one out of 10 from the bottom quartile graduate from college. This disparity has grown over the decades, not dwindled.

Busteed believes that the elite universities hold the key to unlocking a new paradigm in higher education. Instead of elite being defined by selectivity, it can be defined by inclusivity.

Busteed thinks that the elite universities should raise money to build virtual, online degrees that can serve a wider swath of students from the U.S. and abroad. They can leverage their brands to provide differentiated admissions criteria and differentiated tuition prices for online students. By going online, they would not have to limit enrollment to the capacities of their physical campuses.

I disagree with Busteed. When he correctly writes that the disparity in graduation rates between the top income quartile and the lowest income quartile has increased over the past decades, he does not attempt to explain why.

I think it’s obvious that the reason for the disparity is that members of the top income quartile have the financial resources to enroll and stay enrolled in college. Members of the lowest income quartile have no disposable income for college, and money — among other factors — can be a notable difference for persistence.

When I attended Duke University in the 1970s, I was a student who depended on financial aid. Between scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study jobs, I was able to remain in school.

It wasn’t easy. Thankfully, both of my parents worked and were able to pay for my five-day meal plan. That made all the difference for me.

In addition, I paid for meals and other expenses over the weekends from savings collected from my two summer jobs. I did not have the financial resources for cars, winter break or spring break ski trips, beach trips, or some of the other activities that members of the top quartile are able to do.

College tuition, fees, room and board, and other expenses have outstripped the consumer price index (CPI) over the past few decades. Additionally, wage growth for jobs in the lowest quartile have been stagnant, while wages for those in the top 10 percent have increased at rates higher than CPI.

When your outside wages in high school contribute to the costs of living for your family, your decision to attend college increases the financial burden on your family, even if your basic tuition, fees, and books are covered by grants. Going away to college and incurring room and board costs exacerbates the situation for families or individuals from the lowest income quartile.

I don’t believe that we need to ask the Ivy Plus universities to establish online degree programs to solve our college access and success issues. Instead, we need to acknowledge that our financial aid system is broken. Many students from the lowest income brackets cannot afford to attend college, even if there is no out-of-pocket cost for tuition, fees, and books.

Money is not the only issue influencing college student persistence. Student support activities and mentoring can increase the persistence of college students.

Having a college graduate in your immediate family also increases your chances of graduation. Having dependents or working full-time decreases your chances. Building online courses and offering them under an Ivy Plus brand won’t change certain student situations outside of the university’s control.

Mr. Busteed posted a link to his article on his LinkedIn page, which is how I found it. I responded to his post and suggested a different challenge for the Ivy Plus colleges. Instead of building online capacity for a million plus students seeking college degrees, why don’t they build the perfect English course that will prepare students for college-level reading and writing?

In addition, the Ivy Plus universities could build the perfect online math course that prepares students for college-level math. If they can build those courses, I predict that foundations would be willing to cover the costs of development and subsidizing the costs of the courses. If we can increase the number of academically prepared students, we can rule out another reason for college dropout.

Having an elite degree won’t resolve all of the problems. We need to be able to help more people from the lowest income bracket to be able to persist in college.

Many of our colleges have excess capacity today. Let’s give students from the lowest income quartile a better chance to succeed in college by making sure that they’re academically prepared, have the appropriate financial support, and can obtain counseling support. That will make a difference.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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