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The changing face of higher education

We have been reading for some time now about the demographic shift that was occurring in the nation, but I don't think we in higher education have truly digested the impact it will have on our institutions. Two weeks ago, the Southern Education Foundation released a report, A New Majority, concluding that, for the first time in our history, the majority of students in America who are attending public schools qualify for free and reduced price lunches under a federal program designed to assist the lowest income students. In Maryland, the figure is 43 percent, and in Virginia it is 39 percent. And these are two of the richest states in the nation. While shocking to many, this news has not come as a surprise to those of us who have been paying attention. The reason for the concern is that numerous long-term studies show that students from families in the lowest quarter of income are only about one-fifth as likely to obtain a four-year college degree by age 25 as those from families in the highest quartile. And, unfortunately this gap has been growing.

For years, my campus has been warning of the increasing number of lower income students at the elementary and secondary school levels. After all, it is these students who will make up the future pool of college students. Since the mid-1990s, the growth in lower income students, who tend to be black and Hispanic, was masked by the rapid growth in the number of children of the baby boomers, which was primarily a white phenomenon and is now over. As a result, many states are experiencing a downturn in white students graduating from college. At the same time, there has been steady growth in the percentage of blacks and Hispanics within the total pool of high school graduates. On average, these students are coming from families with lower incomes and are less prepared for college than the white students they are replacing. This comes at a time when we have placed a great deal of emphasis on increasing the rate of degree completion in the young adult population in order to improve our national economic competitiveness. Obviously, we will need to make significant adjustments if we are to reach our national and state goals for educational attainment.

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This won't be easy for some states and some institutions. In Maryland, the number of public high school graduates has been essentially stable since 2008, following steady growth that began in the mid-1990s. During this growth period, higher education enrollments in the state reached record levels. State goals for degree attainment are based on the assumption that college degree production will remain high. However, while the number of high school graduates has been stable, the number of new freshmen entering higher education in the state has declined substantially due to the changing racial and ethnic composition of high school graduates. Since 2009, the number of new freshmen entering Maryland higher education has declined by nearly 6,000. This is more than the size of the entering freshmen classes combined at University of Maryland, College Park and University of Maryland, Baltimore County — the largest and third largest campuses in the state. Obviously, this will have a major impact on the number of students obtaining degrees.

Strongly correlated with the 6,000 decline in college freshmen is a decline of some 4,000 white high school graduates between 2008 and 2013. White students, on average, come from families with higher incomes than the students who are replacing them. Their pre-college preparation, as measured by the SAT and ACT scores, also is much higher. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that Maryland has consistently been below the national average on SAT scores for most of the past decade, after previously tracking the national average.

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My campus historically has enrolled a student body which ranges from those with exemplary pre-college credentials to those who need assistance to be successful in college. The vast majority, however, are lower income as reflected by the high rate of students receiving federal aid (62 percent of undergraduates receive Pell Grants and 81 percent receive federal loans). A large number of our graduates are from families in the lowest income categories, a group that nationally has a relatively low rate of degree attainment.

The ability to graduate these students does not happen by accident. Some of the special provisions we have to make to maximize the probability of success for our students include: remedial classes in English and math for many entering freshmen; small class sizes for freshmen and sophomores, which precludes the large classes and the use of graduate students that allow most campuses to economize; out-of-class academic support for our freshmen and sophomores; and a large program of student financial aid to fill the gaps left by federal and state programs.

The provisions we make to better serve lower income students mean that our faculty have a higher average teaching load than is typically found at research universities. A significant amount of money that typically is used for general operations at most campuses is used for student support services and financial aid at ours.

One of the advantages of the American system of higher education is that it has campuses with a diverse array of missions. The fact that many campuses have liberal admissions standards makes it possible for flagship and other campuses to be highly selective while still allowing for society's broader needs for access to be met. The more selective institutions, however, typically are accorded the most prestige and the highest levels of public support because the perception is that selectivity is associated with quality.

Based on past studies, it appears that only a small percentage of the emerging college-age population will have the credentials to be admitted to and succeed at these campuses. But what of all the other students? In the emerging environment in which we find ourselves, the heavy lifting is going to be carried out by community colleges and institutions like Morgan State University. This will require the recognition of the importance of the missions of these institutions, and it will require allocation of additional resources to allow them to be effective in educating the new majority of the college population.

David Wilson is President of Morgan State University. His email address is: david.wilson@morgan.edu.

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