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More than Money | OP-ED

We know that postsecondary education makes a difference in a person’s life, but what we often fail to address is the ongoing, exponential impact that a college degree

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We know that postsecondary education makes a difference in a person’s life, but what we often fail to address is the ongoing, exponential impact that a college degree has on an individual’s long-term success. Over a lifetime, this becomes, on average, a million-dollar difference. In the absence of a degree there are fewer overall opportunities for professional growth.

Before students can reap the benefits of a four-year degree, they must be able to access that education—and there are measurable differences in who attends college: Of total enrolled college students, 52% identify as White, followed by 20% Hispanic/Latino, 15% African American, and 6% Asian. Students who have the greatest financial hardships are enrolling as well as graduating at the lowest rates. Thus, we have an obligation to these students to break down barriers to success.

At the institution level, positioning each student for the same rate of success means having a holistic process for analyzing individual situations. The schools that do this best provide a variety of schedules and modalities to align with students’ differing circumstances. This includes access to counseling and financial aid education, as well as tutoring and instructional support—all provided at hours convenient for the student. 

Higher education leaders have a responsibility to explore the barriers to enrollment and graduation and create solutions to diminish the gap. With different socioeconomic, cultural, and educational backgrounds, our students are starting at different places, so we must work with intentionality to tailor solutions based on unique situations. Having served in leadership at larger, public institutions as well as at smaller, private schools, I have seen differences in both settings, and have led successful efforts to close these gaps. I know firsthand that when efforts are directed and strategic, the positive outcomes can be significant. 

We must look at how the student experience can be as efficient and cost-effective as possible for all. This may mean accelerated programs anywhere along the educational continuum—from earning college credits at the high school level, to community college pathways to a four-year education and beyond. We must consider how pathways to educational success can be amended through a student-centric lens—from length of time to modality of programs—for the benefit of all. In addition, integrating experiential learning into every major broadens the experience, shows students what is possible, and provides valuable connections for future employment. This, too, should be carefully constructed to ensure inclusivity and to remove barriers to entry.

Equity starts with leaders in higher education, and includes ensuring that the campus community reflects the student community. Recognizing and celebrating a diverse learning population enhances the university experience for all. But we cannot forget about the critical role of the family in a student’s success. We know that students who have a support system in place have a much greater likelihood of success. This is especially true for first-generation students.

While our ultimate goal for students is to ensure that they not only graduate but also thrive, any level of exposure to postsecondary education has an impact. At every step along the way, higher education improves overall earnings and well-being, and benefits the family and the greater community. As higher education leaders we have the privilege and responsibility of helping every student to achieve success by shrinking the equity gap in education.

Dr. Anne Prisco is the president of Holy Family University. Prior to joining Holy Family University, Dr. Prisco served as president of Felician University and vice president at Loyola Marymount University. She was a faculty member at St. John’s University, and held senior leadership roles at Hunter College and Lehman College, CUNY.  

*Statistics are from the National Center for Education Statistics and American Council on Education

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