Ideas

Position Paper: Accessibility – Breaking Barriers & Building Bridges

Key ideas:

  • Accessibility must be an important consideration in every decision made by Regents and University leadership.
  • The University of Michigan strays from its public mission when it fails to address (or exacerbates) accessibility issues.
  • The barriers to a University of Michigan degree must be torn down and bridges built to gain access for qualified underrepresented, first generation, lower-income, or other non-traditional students.
  • Reduced state aid and tax policy represent significant contributing factors to declines in accessibility.
  • Improve institutional support including expanded office hours for financial aid offices, academic advising, and other student services.
  • Extend hours of computer labs and libraries during and in between academic terms.
  • Increase allowances for child care in determining financial need.
  • Attention should be focused on greater coordination with community colleges to facilitate transfers for qualified students, more extensive outreach to low-income/under-represented communities, and better allocation of financial aid to students in acute financial distress.
  • Continue to enable the U-M Alumni Association LEAD Scholars.
  • The University should disclose performance and progress metrics related to accessibility.

Discussion:

A college education opens many doors, but the doors to college are closing for working families.

The University of Michigan must preserve access to higher education for qualified students.

President James B. Angell, the longest serving president in the history of the University, recognized the essential mission of the University to provide an “uncommon education for the common man.”

Today, the University has strayed from this mission.

A recent report from The Education Trust concluded that public universities, including the University of Michigan, “have drifted away from their historic mission.” The report observed that public universities are “[n]o longer widely accessible, their treasure is bestowed disproportionately on the children of America’s economic and political elites.”

Even the Early Fall 2011 issue of Michigan Alumnus stated that “[t]he nation’s top public universities don’t always earn high marks for helping lower-income students.” The magazine cited The Education Trust report as evidence that the University of Michigan “ranked as one of the two lowest in terms of performance and progress” with regard to accessibility.

Accessibility must be an important consideration in every decision made by Regents and University leadership. The barriers to a University of Michigan degree must be torn down for qualified applicants and bridges built to gain access for underrepresented, first generation, lower-income, or other non-traditional students.

The Education Trust reported troubling developments at public universities like the University of Michigan:

“[J]ust as increasing numbers of low-income students and students of color are turning toward college, many colleges are turning away from them. Driven by commercial ranking systems that reward them more for who they exclude than for who they educate, and anxious to attract the out-of-state and other full-pay student who can help make up for declining state investments, public research-extensive universities have become less and less representative of the high school graduates in their states.”

Of course, declining state aid and tax policy represent significant factors behind these developments. For example, according to the American Council on Education, Pell Grants were originally intended to cover approximately 80% of the cost of attending a public four-year college, but only cover 36% of the cost today. Moreover, the shift toward education related tax credits and tax deductions largely benefit middle-class families (with income) but not lower-class families (with limited income). However, all public universities including the University of Michigan, make choices regarding financial aid and other policies that significantly impact access to higher education.

It is difficult to assess performance regarding accessibility, but four metrics accurately measure current performance and, most importantly, improvement. These metrics address 1) minority student access (comparing the percentage of African-American, Latino and American Indian first year students at U of M with the percentage of these students among Michigan high school graduates), 2) low-income student access (comparing the percentage of Pell Grant recipients enrolled at U of M with the percentage of Pell Grant recipients enrolled at all Michigan colleges/universities), 3) minority student success (comparing the six-year graduation rate for minority students with the six-year graduation rate for white students who entered in the same year), and 4) composite performance (a combination of each metric for an overall measurement). These metrics were included in the Opportunity Adrift report produced by The Education Trust.

Applying these metrics, the University of Michigan performance is cause for concern:

With regard to low-income access, 13.4% of U of M students are Pell Grant recipients compared to 38.7% of all Michigan college/university students. Why so low? Surely there are highly qualified low-income students across Michigan eager to attend U of M. This must change.

The University of Michigan is at risk of becoming a bastion of privilege and wealth. The New York Times recently reported (May 24, 2011) that “At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution.” The same article cited a “Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges. As entering freshmen, only 15% of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.”

In addition to financial (loans, grants, etc.) and tax credit related support for students, other forms of institutional support are necessary to improve access to a U-M education. For example, U-M should work to expand evening and weekend hours for financial aid offices, academic advising, and other student services. Additionally, computer labs and libraries should offer extended hours during the academic year and, importantly, between terms to provide uninterrupted access to email and other digital resources. Core academic classes must be offered at a range of times that allow flexibility for adult students with work and child care responsibilities.

Regents must continue to enable the U-M Alumni Association effort to improve access and diversity. Specifically, the Alumni Association LEAD Scholars (Leadership, Excellence, Achievement, and Diversity) program provides recruiting scholarships from $5,000 up to $15,000 per year renewable for a total of four years.

The University must work with great urgency to aggressively address these issues. Attention should be focused on greater coordination with community colleges to facilitate transfers for qualified students, more extensive outreach to low-income/under-represented communities, and better allocation of financial aid to students in acute financial distress.

Additionally, the University should hold itself accountable with the establishment of accurate performance and progress metrics. These measurements should be disclosed publicly (similar to the Michigan Education Dashboard found at http://www.vpcomm.umich.edu/pa/key/budget/).

 
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