There are about 2,800 four-year public and nonprofit private colleges and universities in the United States. Yet as we await the Supreme Court’s decision on the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the nation’s gaze is once again narrowed to the most elite and selective 100 institutions: the so-called top 5 percent.
Administrators at these top-ranking colleges, along with college counselors at elite high schools, are strategizing how they might manage what many anticipate will be a vastly altered admissions landscape.
No doubt, there is a lot at stake for a small sliver of students and institutions. For the great majority of prospective college students in this country, however, none of this latest hand-wringing is relevant.
Let’s not forget that the highest-ranked and wealthiest institutions educate fewer than 5 percent of those pursuing a postsecondary degree.
In fact, the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action will be largely inconsequential to success in college for most students. Let’s not forget that the highest-ranked and wealthiest institutions educate fewer than 5 percent of those pursuing a postsecondary degree.
Yet elite institutions continue commanding outsized attention in discussions of inequality in higher education. Demands are regularly made for these colleges and universities to increase access for low-income students, reconsider admission processes and better support the communities in which they are located.
No doubt, the social injustices and socioeconomic disparities plaguing our country are reflected in the status and resources held by our elite institutions. Some argue that the response to these challenges should be to increase access to elite institutions for students from marginalized and otherwise under-resourced communities.
Certain evidence does indeed suggest that an elite institution can transform the lives of such students, although other studies demonstrate that elite spaces exacerbate marginalization. Notably, expanding the size of the entering classes at elite institutions would impact only a small number of students.
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We can do much better than that. We should, instead, focus on addressing the needs of the other 95 percent of institutions that are actually educating the vast majority of college students.
The other 95 percent serve a diverse group, including older students, veterans and parents and caregivers. Students at the 95 percent are typically seeking an affordable education and are reluctant to take on debt for higher education.
They are also seeking convenience: a safe, economical way to get to campus or study online or in a hybrid format and a schedule that allows them to continue to work full or part time. Their ultimate goal is often to alter their life trajectory through a well-paying job they would be unable to get without a degree.
These students value dedicated support (advising, career development services) when they need it, and tutoring, quality programs and professors who care about their success.
Promoting excellence at institutions that are not elite — and which are serving nearly all our postsecondary students — has enormous promise for improving student outcomes and graduation rates.
The non-elite institutions include regional four-year colleges and universities, many of which provide wraparound services and have dedicated faculty and staff who have shown they can be more successful at serving their students, helping them persist and graduate. Many also have passion for the potential of education to transform underserved individuals and communities.
For example, in Michigan, Grand Valley State University’s equity-focused REP4 program (in collaboration with other regional colleges across the U.S.) empowers students to design and implement new and better approaches to learning and support.
In Pennsylvania, Cheyney University, a small HBCU, houses startup biotech companies in its science building, where the growing startups engage students in learning and research.
It’s not access to elite institutions that matters to the great majority of students. It’s that so many can’t get the affordable, convenient education they desire. That’s why it’s time to stop obsessing over what the most selective colleges are doing, learn from the other 95 percent and invest in their success.
Julie Wollman is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously served as president of Widener University and Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. Jacqueline M. Wallis is a Ph.D. student studying philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.
This story about elite colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.