Author’s note—This begins a 4-part series of research articles: Parts I & II will explore why and how US public high school students face significant inequity in terms of attaining college and career readiness, and Parts III & IV will propose specific, tangible action. Footnotes appearing in parenthetical format will connect to URL links at the end of Parts I, II, and III; full details of all works cited from the series will appear at the conclusion of Part IV. Thank you for joining me.
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
This quote, attributed to everyone from Plutarch and Plato to Ben Franklin, rings particularly true in these times of decreased educational equities and a US college admissions scandal. America’s school district leaders have been expressing outrage for many years about the opportunity gap their students face, and as a result, a new paradigm of college and career readiness is emerging to better support a more level playing field.
When the FBI broke the Varsity Blues scandal in March 2019 the public was incensed, but fewer professionals in the college admissions field were surprised. America has a long, unfortunate history of privilege begetting privilege when it comes to opportunity. Given the stark reality exposed in the illegal activities of wealthy families gaming a fragmented system, school district leaders across America now face a question more serious than ever: are they doing enough to secure the futures of their less-advantaged students?
Information asymmetry occurs when economic circumstances allow access to crucial intelligence for some more than others. Historically, the resulting imbalance of power where such unevenness exists has led to market failure, monopolies, or other undesirable outcomes. Whether as seen in the American student debt crisis—where the phenomenon of information asymmetry has contributed to $1.6 trillion in debt—or in the general hopelessness reported by increasing numbers of teens (1), interventions at the district level are needed to course-correct for market and government failures. Without such changes, business as usual means risking catastrophic economic and societal repercussions. This research will propose that public school districts require and provide necessary information for college and career readiness expressly created to support underserved populations, moving the onus from private markets for the few and the wealthy to more equitable access funded by their own budgets.
Lacking such support, students flounder. False starts are common—approximately 40% of those who enter college fail to graduate, 10.8% of their student loans end in default, and significant numbers of them lapse into delinquency (2). Not all students should be pushed toward four-year colleges, but conversely no single student should fail to try for higher education purely on the basis of lack of encouragement to explore. The policy solution proposed in this series: that information symmetry be provided to all 9th-12th graders who are first generation, English learners, at-risk and/or economically disadvantaged. This support cannot be one-size-fits-all; a tailored approach is required. If we expands the definition of “economically disadvantaged” to not only to include free/reduced lunch but also all students whose parents cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket tuition for a 4-year college degree, the vast majority of public school students qualify. 100% of Spuerintendent respondents to a February 2019 survey said yes to the following question: “Is it the responsibility of the public school district to provide support for students in order to facilitate college access? Examples: test prep, financial aid counseling, admissions essays coaching, etc.” Yet policies have not always strategized effective implementation toward these objectives.
Since human capital is key to a nation’s wellness, the answer is yes—but this does not happen automatically. Equitable access must be seen as more than a “nice-to-have”. This urgent matter of national economic wellness should be treated as such. District leaders now realize it’s up to them to protect public education by ensuring students master a broad array of discreet skills, including recognizing the ramifications of signing a promissory note, how to identify various types of financial aid, how to identify right-fit scholarships, how to secure merit-based financial aid from institutions to offset the need to over-borrow through competitive GPAs and exam scores, and how a non-college-based option like vocational career or the military track may in fact constitute a preferable option for some.
A District Policy Problem
America’s school districts lack a systemic approach to ensure particular sub-demographics of students are 100% confident that they can afford to aspire in terms of college and/or career. Case in point: students signing for college loans without full understanding of their significance and consequences. As they enter high school, American teens have little to no idea what lies ahead in 4 short years (3). The importance of the pivot from middle school to freshman year of high school marks a critical transition, both for students and for the US public education system as a whole. Annually, almost 25% of all public high school students, and nearly 33% of all blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans fail to complete public high school with their classes. Ninth grade is notoriously a hurdle for many underserved students, where class failures and dropout rates spike more than in any other high school grade level (4). With more than 19% failing to graduate, the reality that academics don’t seem relevant to too many young people comes into sharp focus.
One important aspect of preparing for the future after high school that has been under-addressed, resulting in catastrophic outcomes both personally and economically as a nation, is financial aid literacy. More specifically, because students are not intentionally informed of the many ways to pay for the costs of college—and because of a recent over-emphasis on the FAFSA as a panacea, leading to millions of under-informed borrowers taking federal money—America has reached a tipping point where district policy must light the way to a more knowledgeable populace and equitable future.
Leading districts ensure students think carefully and tactically about what makes the most sense for them. In some cases, less expensive options like trade schools or military may be best. Yesterday’s mindset, where legions of students bought into the idea of pursuing college at all costs without factoring in the time and interest rates, has begun to dissolve. News media over the last several years has been increasingly featuring articles questioning the value of college degrees and their post-graduation benefits (5). Meanwhile, a major nonprofit organization focused on financial literacy for young people, The Jump$tart Coalition, has surveyed high school students since 1997, tracking trends in financial literacy. Results have consistently reflected a lack of understanding about even the most basic economic principles. High school seniors consistently receive failing scores on financial literacy tests (6). Public schools can no longer act surprised when they graduate students to incur staggering debt, having done so little to ensure they have access to necessary knowledge about college costs, student debt and how to make informed choices. By starting as early as 9th grade with consistent information broadly disseminated in public schools, such problems can be averted.
On Market Failure
Market failure occurs when individuals or entities acting in self-interest generate a sub-optimal outcome. Historically, the existence of market failure has not guaranteed that governmental intervention would improve the situation. “Government may be unwilling or unable to act primarily in the interest of its citizens. Policymakers may lack needed capacity, and politicians and civil servants may have interests and agendas of their own,” assert political analysts and co-authors Eugene Bardach and Eric Patashnik (7). Although public education has not traditionally been seen as an explicit “market”, where goods and services are bought and sold outright, leaders with the power to positively impact access in America must address the implicit factors such as under-effective interventions currently failing millions of public school students in their care. By increasing college and career readiness for all disadvantaged public school students starting in grade 9, the current paradigm can be disrupted in favor of districts directly providing educational technology solutions to fill the void of zero-to-mediocre information currently reaching high school students in desperate need of robust mentorship.
Despite laudable programs like GEAR UP, AVID, and other nonprofits making inroads to solve some of this problem for subsets of the overall population within school districts, millions of underserved students still lack access to necessary information and therefore opportunity. The need to close the opportunity gap and develop a future-ready mindset lingers due to a problem of scale: there are simply not enough qualified live mentors available to guide each of America’s public high school students through the maze of successful college admissions, or career readiness for that matter. No matter how committed the on-site adults may be, technology is necessary to support them—and for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, this needs to be customized with them in mind. Consider the alarming fact that 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time (8). The socioeconomic gap widens, requiring districts to help fix what is unsustainable economically and divisive culturally.
Key players in the current ecosystem sometimes don’t help. Despite its nonprofit status, The College Board, for example, profits substantially (9). The organization pockets significant revenue by selling PSAT-gleaned data of millions of public school students to colleges and military recruiters. Its recent allocation of an “adversity score” to its SAT college entrance exam only muddies the waters further, placing itself in the role of omniscient assessor of quantifying students’ various challenges as if these can exist within an apples-to-apples grid (10). The College Board directly impacts the futures of millions of disadvantaged students who cannot afford private tutoring or college tuition—yet according to Reuters. it profited by $77 million in 2015, holding $834 million in assets. Nonprofit Quarterly has asked whether The College Board is a nonprofit in name only, and other educational advocacy groups have done the same.
Despite ACT Inc. splitting marketshare for college testing, the CEEB (College Entrance Examination Board, aka The College Board) takes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in program service revenue, in the past mostly from test-takers and their parents, and increasingly from the states and districts themselves (11). Annual income exceeds expenses, consistently generating net assets in the eight-figure range. This revenue stream leads to ownership of Manhattan real estate and paying its president over $250,000 in annual compensation. A team of lawyers defends its test-taking company, ETS—Educational Testing Service—in approximately a million dollars per year of legal battles (12). Meanwhile, according to public records, ACT Incorporated, another nonprofit, earned $332M in program service revenue and paid $126M in salaries, $800K of which went to Director Martin Roorda. Net assets being held by ACT Inc. according to its 2016 tax returns top $444M (13).
District leaders do well when they consider how accessing viable pathways to college and career readiness in America has become more difficult for disadvantaged students. College enrollment rates are substantially decreased for students in the lowest family income quartile, as compared to students in the top family income quartile. In fact, America’s 30-percentage point gap in college enrollment rates between low-income and high-income students is comparable to the size of the gap in the 1960s (14). With student debt and other crises marking a tipping point in the nation, the time for new innovation to disrupt old paradigms has come. Anything less would be an outrage.
Be sure to check in soon for Part II: Economic and Policy Considerations.
District leaders are invited to connect to the author directly by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Footnotes for Part I
1 https://khn.org/morning-breakout/feelings-of-sadness-or-hopelessness-are-on-the-rise-in-teens-deeply-disturbing- report-finds/.
7 Bardach, Eugene and Eric M. Patashnik. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis. 3-4.
14 Perna, Laura W. (2006) Studying College Access and Choice. University of Pennsylvania Press. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/008f/b8d7f1ea2c0965b7bf544bb80c214cb212da.pdf.