Access and Outcomes Are Not at Odds

For more than 150 years, access to higher education, regardless of a student’s financial background, has been the driving force behind efforts to make good on the transformative promise of education. It is a paradigm that began with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts in the late 1800s and was later dramatically shaped by the GI Bill, the Higher Education Act of 1965, the creation of the Pell Grant program, and the civil rights movement. To this day, federal policies rightfully continue to focus on this important goal. However, some institutions and policymakers have started to turn their attention toward student outcomes, arguing for a greater focus on student success both during students’ time at college and after they graduate.

Too often these conversations take the form of a debate, with the access and success agendas presented as though they are at odds with one another. This framing assumes that higher education can not be a successful venture for all students, or that institutions can not work toward both goals simultaneously. In reality, this is a false choice. Access and outcomes are, in fact, tightly connected. Institutions and policymakers still have a core responsibility to lower barriers — financial, or otherwise — and widen access to higher education. But they should also think deeply about what, exactly, students are gaining access to. With more than $120 billion in federal financial assistance awarded to students every year, there must be policies in place that ensure students not only have a pathway into college, but also to a credential that can help them succeed long after graduation.

Policymakers are not the only people asking “access to what” when it comes to higher education. Skyrocketing tuition and student debt have left students and their families increasingly asking the question, “Is college worth it?” Fortunately, for most students, the answer is a clear yes — if they graduate. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Americans with four-year college degrees earn, on average, 98 percent more per hour than those without a degree. But, entering college does not guarantee this outcome. Unfortunately, less than 60 percent of students earn a degree in six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Examining student outcomes is especially important when working toward the goal of increasing access for low-income students. While the wealth gap for college attendance has shrunk over time, the wealth gap for college graduates has actually grown. Just 11.3 percent of children born to low-wealth families in the 1970s earned a bachelor’s degree. Among low-wealth children born in the 1980s, only 11.8 percent earned a degree — despite college attendance rates rising by about eight percentage points. Meanwhile, children from the wealthiest families saw graduation rates increase by 14 percentage points over that same span, even as college attendance for those students dipped slightly. Just as intentional access-based policy efforts have resulted in surge of low-income and first-generation students enrolling in college, focusing on student success for all of today’s students can help to close this gap.

According to Lumina Foundation, just shy of half of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 hold a postsecondary degree or credential. The foundation has set a goal of reaching a 60 percent graduation rate by 2025. Getting to that, or any other, attainment goal requires a simultaneous focus on access and success. More students must not only attend college, but also graduate with a credential that can help them find meaningful and well-paying jobs in an increasingly complex world of work. That can happen, but only if we design intentional strategies to ensure that students are supported throughout their postsecondary career, recognize all high-quality postsecondary learning opportunities and pathways, and hold institutions accountable for outcomes.