How to fix inequality? It’s time for research universities to step up, says ASU president Michael Crow.
By Michael Crow and William Dabars
There is an open secret among the higher education intelligentsia that should give pause to any parent who hopes to send a child to college someday—and to anybody who worries about growing inequality in America. The greatest predictor of success in American higher education isn’t a student’s grades or SAT scores; it’s family income and zip code.
In our society, students from families in the top quartile of family income are eight times more likely to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree than their peers from the bottom quartile. This means far too many academically qualified and creative students are being left behind. True, some top schools have made efforts to recruit disadvantaged students, but the scale of the challenge is far broader.
Nationally, any number of solutions has been proposed, but we would suggest that the responsibility lies heavily with research universities—and that it will require fundamental change in the model for these institutions, particularly public research universities, given their historical obligation to the citizens of the states where they were founded.
Of the roughly 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, only 108 are major research universities. These include private institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Stanford and the University of Chicago. But nearly three-fourths are public, including most of the leading state universities—the so-called flagships or “public Ivies,” such as UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan.
These institutions—along with about 100 additional universities that have less extensive research portfolios—define the academic gold standard in American higher education. Regardless of socioeconomic background, students admitted to more academically rigorous institutions are far more likely than others to graduate, succeed professionally, and contribute to societal wellbeing. Not only do research universities drive discovery and innovation, they’re uniquely positioned to give students the advanced skills they need to adapt over their lifetimes to changing workforce demands.
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Last modified: October 2, 2015