Sophie Zdatny and Maria Markham Opinion: Why Achieving Equity in Higher Education Is a Bipartisan Issue

The United States has rarely been so divided, with partisan politics infiltrating Americans’ perspectives on nearly every major challenge facing the country. That includes higher education, with Democrats and Republicans strongly disagreeing on issues like affirmative action, student debt forgiveness, and campus free speech.

There is, however, one viewpoint that is connecting both sides of the aisle, and it’s a troubling sign for colleges and universities: the majority of both Republicans and Democrats say higher education is headed in the wrong direction.

About three-quarters of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats cite students not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace as one reason their belief in higher education is waning. About 90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans also cite high tuition.

Americans overall are losing faith in higher education. One recent survey revealed that most Americans now say a college education is more of a gamble than a smart investment in their future.

We are seeing that lack of faith reflected in sharply declining enrollment. Nearly 3 million fewer students have enrolled in college over the last decade. The COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing economic impact have exacerbated this sentiment, and one million fewer students have enrolled since March 2020.

As higher education executive officers for two states with very different political orientations, we have come to recognize that even in this time of historic polarization, consensus can—and must— be found on an issue as important as postsecondary education.

Although the politics of our states differ greatly, we have found common ground on the need to close gaps in college completion and better serve all of America’s learners.

We know that a postsecondary credential remains one of the country’s most powerful levers for social and economic mobility.

But we also know the journey to that degree remains a risky and costly bet for far too many people. Nearly one-third of all college students do not earn a degree within six years, with Black and Hispanic students struggling to graduate at disproportionate rates compared to white learners.

Thirty-six million U.S. adults have earned some college credit but never graduated, including more than five million Black Americans. About 40 percent of students who take out loans to pay for their education do not graduate within six years, leaving them with plenty of debt, but without a credential or a clear pathway to a career.

Many may disagree with President Biden’s plan to address the student debt crisis, but it’s clear that we must fix the broken system that led us here in the first place.

Arkansas has long worked to increase the state’s attainment rate, with a funding model that focuses on bolstering student success through three broad goals: efficiency, effectiveness, and affordability.

The plan aims to increase the percentage of credentialed Arkansans from the current 39.5 percent to 60 percent by 2025. Since 2017, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education has partnered with Complete College America, a nonprofit dedicated to boosting graduation rates across the country, to improve on-time completion and reduce student loan debt.

The initiative provides students with critical information about credit accumulation and empowers them to make better-informed decisions about their academic journey.

Vermont has also made strides in improving access and college completion for its learners as part of the state’s 70 percent attainment goal.

Recognizing that the growing majority of today’s college-goers are older, working learners with a wide range of experiences and backgrounds, the Vermont State Colleges System now offers students opportunities to gain credit for prior learning they gained through work, training, military or community service, and online or individual study.

This means the wealth of knowledge and expertise learners bring with them to college can count toward their degree requirements, shortening the time and cost of earning a credential.

Meanwhile, the Vermont Department of Labor and the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation have created an online hub for Vermonters to explore 60 of the state’s most promising career pathways, as well as to learn about the education and training programs that could best lead to these jobs.

As members of an alliance of institutions partnering with Complete College America, both Vermont and Arkansas make use of its Game Changers strategies. These research-proven methods are helping us increase the number of students in our states successfully completing college and helping us close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.

The members of the alliance are all committed to taking the bold actions necessary to significantly increase the number of students successfully completing college with degrees and credentials of value.

At a time of such stark polarization in our country, achieving equity in higher education must remain a truly bipartisan issue. We must come together, invest in proven student success strategies, and ensure our state’s colleges and universities are living up to the promises they are making to millions of Americans.

This article was originally published by RealClearEducation and made available via RealClearWire.

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