Author’s note—This is part II in a IV-part series of research articles: Parts I & II explore why and how US public high school students face significant inequity when aspiring to attain 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.
The highly privatized tutoring and counseling industries in America generate $1.2 billion annually, as business-to-consumer corporations like The Princeton Review and Kaplan vie for dollars from parents whose economic status allows investing $599 in a six-week SAT prep course of 30 students in a room, or $5,999 for six weeks of one-on-one support in their homes with expert educators (1). Most American families cannot afford even the most rudimentary of such luxuries (2).
Without adequate funding being allocated for intervention, one interesting trend over the past several decades has been an increasing alliance between school districts and nonprofit organizations trying to fill the vacuum of adequate support for the underserved in what can only be described as a complicated relationship. From a public choice theory perspective, the limitations of special interest groups and on-site nonprofits in course-correcting bears noting. Public choice theory posits that in the private marketplace people are primarily motivated by self-interest (3). Alliances across sectors have not been able to solve the riddle of access to higher education or career readiness for disadvantaged youth at scale.
In the realm of higher education, those with money and power have yet to balance the corporate and organizational profiteering within the current system. Not only are protections for students with disadvantages still lacking, these young people are often the first to be exploited as they aspire. Consider the high-interest rate credit cards offered online and at colorful booths at freshmen orientation events by mercenary corporations. These credit cards, specifically marketed on bank websites, profit from offering new students who lack established credit an average APR of 21.40%, spiking to 24.10% for cash withdrawals. In one particularly egregious example, the Journey Student Rewards card from Capital One recently offered an APR of 26.96% (4).
Compounding this, underserved students are at risk of falling prey to nefarious institutions seeking revenue over legitimate academic support. In fact, more and more colleges and universities are losing accreditation: since 2000, six regional accrediting organizations overseeing four-year colleges in the US have stripped 18 institutions of their accreditation status (5). Those colleges had an average graduation rate of 35%and average student-loan default rate of 9.3%. In an extreme example, Paul Quinn College in Texas had only a 9% graduation rate and a two-year default rate of 23.4%. For-profit schools like University of Phoenix have still benefitted from unsatisfactory regulations around student borrowing. Thankfully, the FSA has begun cracking down on such schools, some of which can no longer receive FAFSA-related funds such as Stafford Loans and Pell grants (6). Students from disadvantaged backgrounds can be targeted and lured to commit to private student loans from more than half a dozen commercial banks including Bank of America, as well as the federal options for what many misperceive as “free money”. The burden of paying for higher education is now America’s second largest debt after consumer mortgages, and monthly student loan payments increased from $227 in 2005 to $393 in 2016, according to the Federal Reserve. A typical student owes $20,000 more than they did just 13 years ago for a four-year degree (7). In order to protect public high school students, they must have careful instruction from knowledgeable mentors.
In fact, underserved students have been disproportionately targeted and exploited for decades. Since the 1990s-2000s, when for-profit institutions began to proliferate, problems were compounded by deregulation of the sector. The George W. Bush administration’s legislation weakened government oversight of such schools, while increasing their access to federal financial aid. This move enticed Wall Street investors and opened up to a new, dark alleyway in the marketplace—for-profit corporations promoting colleges that exist primarily to enrich their owners. With the largest of these nationally franchised corporations publicly traded, legal requirements in this business model prioritize optimal profit for shareholders before education for students. The problem is the priority, and those lacking the savvy to understand the system were—and are—the ones paying the price (8).
District leaders benefit from materials shared by the US Department of Education’s Department of Educational Technology, which recently stated in some of its public-facing content “…technology can enable system-wide and broader ecosystem applications of collaborative solutions to the core challenges of access, affordability, and completion” (9). The question remains: what technologies are district leaders locating and making available, to ensure their disadvantaged students have a more level playing field?
Currently, motivation is for sale from mentors through small and large businesses that earn billions in revenue cumulatively from middle- and upper-class families. This marks where rubber hits the proverbial road, a chokepoint for access where only a district- or school-funded program will reach every student. Information categorically must be made symmetrically available to every 9th-12th grader in America’s public high schools, otherwise the private school elite and those with means to pay-to-play will always hold an unfair advantage on a tilted field.
Regulatory policy occurs when a government affects the national economy through limitations on what can and can’t be done in the marketplace (10). Most governments have some regulations covering a variety of areas, including banking, insurance, and other financial businesses. The current US Department of Education is already in the regulating business. For example, as recently as May 21, 2019 Secretary Betsy DeVos referenced a focus on the higher educational institutions themselves, saying, “We committed to students that we would continually improve the College Scorecard so that they could access relevant, accurate and actionable data as they make decisions about their education after high school, the updates released today are another step in fulfilling that promise. We look forward to seeing how students, parents, institutions and researchers utilize this important information” (11). Sadly, this regulatory commitment of taxpayer resources falls short of what millions of students actually require. Telling the disadvantaged about the college is not the problem; ensuring they know that they can afford to aspire inthe first placeis.
The battle for America’s future is anchored in legal rulings that in many ways determine who gets to move up economically and who doesn’t. Manyof the drivers affecting current realities are political in nature. Society as whole is impacted, which more and more misses out on the human capital potential of millions of Americans every year who under-aspire because they cannot afford to do otherwise. Legal mandates, regulations and initiatives influence for better or worse the options students have within their public schools to try to further their prospects after highschool.
Conflicting values among the haves and the have-nots have driven big business for many decades. Federal, state and district institutions control policy. Unions and organizations lobby. For-profit corporations scramble to bring solutions to market within legally defined parameters. School districts try to balance their budgets, and when available dollars aren’t sufficient look to local chambers of commerce and philanthropies to fill in the gaps. Nonprofits profit, and the increasingly significant role of charter schools adds to the complexity.
Regulations passed down from the US Department of Education dictate rules in the ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act, which was enacted in December of 2015. The ESSA, alongside the market’s evolution surrounding higher education over the past 15-20 years, has led to state disinvestment in colleges and universities. America suffers an unfortunate trickle-down impact of decreasing incentives or funding for states and school districts to ensure students understand the realities of paying for higher education. As recently as 2008, tuition accounted for only 35.8% of public higher- education revenue across the nation. During 2017, twenty-eight states leanedprimarily on students, not on taxpayers, for tuition dollars. Vermont’s system of public universities and colleges drew 86.6% of its tuition revenue from students, the most extreme example of a disturbing trend.At$72.3 billion nationwide, students now account for an average of 46.4 percent of overall revenue for public higher education, and the numbers only worsen for private colleges and universities (12).
Generations of Americans, meanwhile, are unable to buy homes, get married or invest in their businesses due to crippling obligations to pay for post-secondary education (13). District level innovation can sometimes be stymied and stuck in old-school, outdated paradigms that simply don’t work. One glance at dropout rates, low SAT/ACT scores, and lack of persistence to and through higher education tells district leaders that something is wrong. Those who are visionaries readily embrace a new way of “doing college and career readiness” so that no one gets missed.
One promising state-wide initiative, Texas 2036, seeks to establish new paradigms for others to emulate. Led by former US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, this will be one to watch. As Texas leverages new ideas and technologies to solve for college and career readiness at scale, many specialists working toward increasing equitable access to college and career readiness across the country are enthusiastic to see Texas and other first-movers lead the way (14).
Whereas regulatory policies guide goals, procedural policies establish the step-by-step description of tasks required to support implement them. Procedures clarify the process in a course of action to accomplish stated objectives (15). Procedural public policy impedes college and career readiness for underserved students on several levels, although the Constitution may not explicitly sanction them. As one example, in a substantive policy Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, where separate public facilities based on race were permitted.16The Court cited the Fourteenth Amendment in this reversal. The 14th Amendment, in response to the abolition of slavery, guaranteed the rights of citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, including due process and equal protection of the laws. Procedurally, schools and districts then had to change the way they conducted day-to-day operations. Reversals of substantive policy have often been due to an acceptance of constitutional interpretations rendered by Congress or the president, but the procedural fall-out requires adjusted conduct of government officials, elected or unelected, as well as of administrators, staff and faculty.
Co-ownership of solving the problem is the only way to ensure collaboration and execution of interventions with optimal efficacy. This means professional development is required in order to build bridges and trust between intervention providers and public school educators who have been in the trenches for many years doing things within an established but under-performing model. Only with a systemic approach to customized college and career readiness for low-SES, first generation and other disadvantaged students being put into place will the opportunity gap be ameliorated—and old school ideas about boots-on-the-ground counselors can only do part of thejob due to current student-to-counselor ratios in public high schools. NACAC, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, recommends 250 students to 1 counselor as a maximum desirable ratio. Budgets in most public high schools would have to double or even triple the amount of on-site support to attain that proportion. The national average of 482-to-1, compounded by the fact that the 20% of lowest income school districts allocate little or no budget to this line item, results in an alarmingly un-level playing field. Reports in Chicago of a 700-to-1 ratio, and up to 1000-to-1 in Los Angeles make clear that the time for a new paradigm has arrived. Policy can champion solutions to interrupt narratives of generational poverty, and those will fall into one of two models, or a hybrid of both: live and/or digital mentorship. Future American generations will be impacted by how district decision makers leverage digital disruption in pursuit of pathways to equitable college and career readiness.
Procedurally speaking, state departments of education do well then they incentivize public school districts to address present-day gaps in college and career readiness, particularly for students dealing with economic challenges. Access to technology offering a process by which students can explore how to protect themselves financially while aspiring toward their futures may be able to offset vulnerabilities. These trainings should align to state standards and benchmarks, leverage parent involvement, utilize data and evaluation, champion professional development for teachers and counselors deploying the technology, feature content to support individuals from diverse backgrounds and needs. College and Career Readiness isn’t ideal as an extra-curricular option; this needs to be a core part of the school week, as much as English Literature and Algebra.
Only by stepping forward and leveraging the burgeoning role of technology in students’ lives will America’s public school districts begin to course-correct and stabilize the economic impact of mindful college and career readiness. This requires transformative leadership. According to researcher Carolyn Shields, transformative leadership “begins with questions of justice and democracy, critiques inequitable practices, and addresses both individual and public good” (17). These leaders now have an opportunity to become social architects, re-envisioning the current broken system hindering educational access.
In addition to Texas, another early-mover exploring innovation is California, where State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has formed the Closing the Achievement Gap committee. There, Governor Gavin Newsom has allocated significant state resources and focus to helping districts solve this problem (18).
Transformative leadership starts with a willingness to embrace new ideas. Moving from the familiar to nontraditional methods and ways of thinking requires leaders to move beyond a tendency to be bureaucratic, especially in public education, an area that has historically been quite conservative. It can take a long time to get things done, and teacher andadministrative turnover rates don’t help. Approximately a quarter of the country’s principals quit their schools each year according to national reports, and nearly 50 percent leave in their third year. This “churn” is a major problem in US public high schools, and impedes creative deployment of innovativesolutions.
Political and bureaucratic impediments notwithstanding, the heart of transformative leadership requires “promise, liberation, hope, empowerment, activism, risk, social justice, courage, [and] revolution” (19). Case in point: those who dwell within systems that often frustrate and fail to support them nonetheless laudably persevere and navigate from a raw commitment to the students they serve. They know things are not equitable, largely due to a cultural capital and knowledge gap. They know the opportunity gap is real, and hope for innovative programs to offer critical opportunities toward a societal shift. This desire to see true innovation in the service of marginalized teens is re-stated again and again among educational leaders, as well as in research in academic journals and mass media. It is as if everyone sees the problem and the stakes, but the leadership to shift the paradigm has not been secured quite yet. The time is nigh.
Be sure to check in soon for Part III: An Assessment of New Policy Alternatives
District leaders are invited to connect to the author directly by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Footnotes for Part II
1 IBIS World. Industry Report 61171. Testing & Educational Support in the US
2 Schwartz, Yishai. For Parents Willing to Pay Thousands, College Counselors Promise to Make Ivy League Dreams a Reality. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/a10202220/college-counseling-services/
5 Wall Street Journal. https://graphics.wsj.com/table/ACCREDITlost
6 : https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/prepare-for-college/choosing-schools/consider
9 https://eric.ed.gov/ q=source%3A%22Office+of+Educational+Technology%2C+US+Department+of+Education%22&id=ED591047
12 Bauman. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Who-Foots-Most-of-the-Bill-for/242959
13 Livni. A Dream Defaulted. https://qz.com/1367412/1-5-trillion-of-us-student-loan-debt-has-transformed-the-american-dream/
14 Texas 2036. https://texas2036.org
17 Shields. Transformative leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly. 558-589
19 Shields. Transformative leadership: Working for equity in diverse contexts. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(4), 558-589
20 National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
21 Accelerating College and Career Readiness. 10 July 2018. GATE White Paper. https://openthegate.us.