This month, millions of students are arriving on college and university campuses or logging on to their laptops and tablets, eager to begin or continue a journey toward a certificate or degree. For nearly half of them, that journey will end with debt and short of the certificate or degree that would boost their earnings, sustain their families, and contribute more to their communities. Those who do not make it to graduation are disproportionately from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. As a nation, we can – and must – do better for higher education to fulfill its promise as the foremost route to life-changing opportunity.
Despite its deserved reputation as the great equalizer, the bridge to a better life that is higher education remains too narrow, too hard to navigate, and carries a toll too high for many Americans. Unless we dramatically improve student success in higher education, our nation will not produce enough of the skilled workers needed to ensure our global competitiveness and national security and to reduce, not drive, inequality. We are currently on track to produce 11 million fewer career-relevant certificates and degrees than our economy will require by 2025, and to distribute them in ways that reproduces privilege.
Higher education in 2025 will either be a bridge to opportunity for millions more Americans and an engine of our nation’s economic development, or a barrier to opportunity, driving a wedge between the haves and the have nots, and constraining our growth. The choices we make today – as policymakers, educators, innovators, and advocates – will set a course for one of those paths. After nearly a decade of investing and learning, we at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believe in four solutions that will bring more students to and across that bridge:
1. Financial aid that makes college affordable for students with the most need and promotes both access and success. The Gates Millennium Scholars program has demonstrated that when financial obstacles are removed for high achieving low-income students, they succeed at the same or higher rates than their peers. In the coming months, we will celebrate the successful completion of that program and launch the next generation of the foundation’s scholarship efforts. We will also continue our efforts to simplify the federal student aid application process, which serves as a barrier to higher education for up to two million low-income students a year.
2. Pathways that guide all students to a certificate or degree, regardless of how or where they began their education. There are many roads to a certificate or degree, and at least as many dead ends, especially for the growing number of students who attend more than one institution. That’s why we are investing in approaches that offer students of all kinds a more flexible and coherent path to and through college. This includes providing a clear on-ramp to their chosen field of study, designing and delivering courses and academic supports aligned with that field, and ensuring that students can transfer seamlessly between institutions.
3. Technology that personalizes learning and helps students navigate the path to a certificate or degree. We believe that technology cannot replace the human element of higher education but can enrich it. Through our Next Generation Courseware Challenge, we fund digital approaches with the highest potential to help more low-income and first-generation students succeed in high-enrollment general education courses. We are also preparing to launch the next generation of Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grants, in which colleges and universities will use predictive analytics and other evidence-backed approaches to provide stronger and more immediate guidance to students, especially those most at risk of not completing a certificate or degree.
4. Information that empowers students to make decisions about where and how they attend college, educators to identify students who need help and gauge how best to support them, and policymakers to determine how to target limited public resources toward student success. Much of the data we need to make informed decisions at all levels is either not available or does not cover critical outcomes, students, or institutions. We are working with partners to change that, improving both the quality and delivery of necessary information.
These solutions are powerful. But their impacts on the future of higher education will only be felt if they are implemented now by colleges and universities willing to transform themselves in the interest of their students and our country. The work will require bold and creative leadership and a willingness to innovate at every level. It also will require new types of providers that are able to meet students’ needs with agility and innovation, as well as state and federal policies that provide strong incentives for student access and success.
The world in 2025 holds great promise for higher education. But we must act now if it is to be a bridge to opportunity and not a barrier.
This was originally published on Impatient Optimists.