Today’s Students and the Evolving Equity Movement in Higher Education

The march toward equity has been, for nearly a century, a hallmark in the history of American education. The movement gained nationwide momentum with the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision at the Supreme Court, which found school segregation unconstitutional and established full and equal access to public education as protected under the Constitution. The Higher Education Act of 1965 expanded access through sweeping new financial supports for students and additional resources to colleges and universities. The 1970’s saw affirmative action and Title IX pave the way to equal access in higher education for women and minorities. Federal policies and court cases have helped expand access and equity—yet there is still room for improvement.

Today, that fight continues. Gaps in college access still persist along racial and ethnic lines: white students (57.6 percent) continue to enroll in postsecondary education at higher rates than students of color (42.4 percent). And, African-American student enrollment in postsecondary education reached its peak in 2011 at 15.2 percent and has since started to decline. Beyond access, disparities in completion and persistence also remain: 45.9 percent of African American students and 55 percent of Hispanic students earn a degree at a four-year public institution compared to 67.2 percent of white students.

If we as a society are serious about addressing these disparities, it’s critical that public policy factor in an institution’s ability to serve students of diverse backgrounds. Institutions must continue to closely examine their policies and services to ensure students of color, first-generation college-goers, and other underserved students receive the support they need to succeed. States should continue to set ambitious attainment goals that specifically call for closing equity gaps.

To date, most conversations on closing equity gaps have focused, appropriately, on 18- to 22-year-old undergraduate students from low-income and historically underserved communities, but new challenges to equitable access and outcomes are emerging. Today’s students aren’t uniformly following the traditional path to college. Instead of enrolling right after high school, many enroll after they spent time in the workforce, raised a family, or served in the military. Part-time students, workers, returning adults, parents, veterans and other non-traditional students now represent the majority of today’s students. But yet this constituency is sometimes overlooked in our conversations around equity and national postsecondary policy.

These students face different barriers to enrollment and completion and different equity gaps than the 18- to 22-year-old traditional undergraduate student. Today, the conversation needs to ensure all students—whether they are an 18-year-old first-generation college student or a 55-year-old working adult—have the support to successfully finish college.

Financial Aid: A Barrier to Completion

College affordability and access has always been viewed as the most critical challenge to equity in higher education. But as the pathways followed by underserved students evolve, the issue is a moving target.

Consider the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form required to apply for federal student loans and grants. Filling out this complex, intimidating questionnaire (longer than many federal tax forms) is a daunting task for many of today’s students—one that disproportionately affects low-income, first-generation, and financially-independent students.

FAFSA completion remains one of the strongest indicators of college access, but unfortunately, financially independent students are less likely to submit than those with financial support from a parent or guardian and roughly 40 percent of independent students live below the federal poverty line. Simplifying the FAFSA is an important step policymakers can take to help more low-income, financially independent students access college.

But financial aid simplification is only the tip of the iceberg for building more equitable financial aid policies for today’s students. As the student population skews older, new challenges to equity and access are on the horizon. Colleges and universities today are serving a growing number of adults and older students returning to learn new skills and retool for new careers.

Yesterday’s policies are becoming major headaches for today’s students. Another barrier that stands in the way of many working adults and non-traditional students completing college is Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), a federal requirement that sets academic criteria for federal student aid eligibility. To meet SAP requirements, students must meet requirements determined by institutions that often include a minimum grade point average and a high percentage of courses completed versus attempted. Students failing to meet SAP requirements become ineligible for federal student aid and may have to pay their educational expenses out-of-pocket until they rehabilitate their SAP and are back in good standing.

Serving as a penalty for students who have failed academically, even in the distant past, this requirement adversely affects returning adults and working, low-income students—precisely the students most in need. These students are often restarting a degree or certificate years after failing, but have to work to get back into good academic standing without federal student aid. Resetting SAP for students who are at least five years removed from their previous academic experience would break down barriers for older students and working adults to access federal student aid without being penalized for their past academic work and work toward completing their degree or credential.

Student Parents and Child Care Costs

Covering the cost of tuition is just one of many financial and logistical challenges today’s students face. More than one in five of today’s students are parents, meaning they must find child care options to help them manage work, family, and academics.

Affordable child care is critical for these students to focus on their studies, but, unfortunately, out of reach for many low-income students and families. The cost of center-based child care increased by 72 percent for children younger than 6 years old. For parents, that adds up to a scary 36 percent of income spent on child care. In many states, the cost of child care is higher than tuition and fees at a public four-year institution.

This, too, represents a serious challenge to educational equity: Women of color are more likely to have dependent children, and student parents are also more likely to be low-income and first-generation students. A report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found student-parents of color are much more likely to live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, compared to white student parents. The majority (61 percent) of student parents qualify for the maximum Pell Grant award to help pay for tuition and expenses, and 87.8 percent of single student parents are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Most institutions don’t offer on-campus child care, and the number of on-campus centers declined between 2005-2015. Student parents are accessing college, but disproportionately failing to complete, in part because of a lack of support services on campus, including child care. Just eight percent of single mothers who enroll in college graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with 49 percent of female students without children.

Without affordable on-campus child care options, student parents will continue to struggle to finish, or worse, put off education completely. The Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program provides vital support for student parents through funding for campus-based child care programs primarily serving low-income students. The program helps student parents meet their child care needs, enabling the student to focus on their education and reducing a barrier to completion. Expanding programs like CCAMPIS can help student parents and working adults get skills needed for today’s workforce and provide a better future for their children and families.

Today’s Students: Another Plank in the Equity Platform

With the new pathways today’s students are following, challenges to equity are manifesting themselves not just through historic gaps in achievement and access, but in ever-evolving ways. Postsecondary leaders and policymakers can help to eliminate these gaps and barriers by looking at campus, state, and federal policies through an equity lens, and identifying the financial and programmatic barriers that exist for all of today’s students.

To build an equitable higher education system worthy of the name, we must respond to the new disparities that affect the working adult, the student parent, the returning veteran, and others. Only then can higher education live up to its fundamental promise of upward mobility and complete the work begun by the equity and civil rights pioneers generations ago.