Wednesday February 28, 2018

Closing the Gap

By Eric F. Spina

Talent does not know zip code or race, birthright or income level. Innate talent is a precious gift.

If we are to advance our society and improve our standing in the world, American higher education must scour the country for talented young people NO MATTER their socioeconomic background, enroll them, and support their success.

Last week, I attended a meeting of the American Talent Initiative, where presidents from universities and colleges with the strongest graduation rates in the country reaffirmed their commitment to recruit, admit, and support highly qualified low-income students.

This is, admittedly, a selfish pursuit as well as a national imperative. Bright, capable students from low- and moderate-income families add to the multi-dimensional diversity of campus life and make universities stronger and more innovative. They add richness to classroom discussions and contribute their unique voices to the learning environment across campus. As graduates, these young people will help decrease income inequality and increase economic and social mobility in our society, all hallmarks of a healthy, vibrant country.

As we consider our mission as a Catholic, Marianist university focused on the common good and reflect on our history of educating German immigrants from Ohio farming communities and students from blue-collar families, we know the value of socioeconomic diversity. We also know we need to lower the barriers that prevent students from low- and middle-income bands from attending and graduating from college whether those students come from rural Ohio, suburban Chicago, urban LA, D.C., or New York

Given our mission and this national priority, when several of us at UD read the news release 16 months ago announcing the American Talent Initiative, it took us all of about five minutes before we emailed the organizers to explore whether the University of Dayton might join. The answer was “yes,” in part because we are a high-achieving university (with graduation rates well in excess of the 70 percent minimum), in part because we were willing to make a commitment and set our own goals to increase enrollment and graduation of low- and moderate-income Americans, and in part because we are seen as a University that has unique contributions to make to the collection of best practices in this important domain.

The American Talent Initiative is now comprised of a diverse set of 96 private and public institutions committed to a sustained collective effort to dramatically increase educational opportunity for these talented youth. We are enhancing our own efforts to recruit and support lower-income students, while learning from each other and contributing to research that will help other colleges and universities expand opportunity.

The initiative is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and coordinated by the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R. The ATI coalition has a shared goal of enrolling an additional 50,000 qualified low- and moderate-income students in the top 270 U.S. colleges and universities by 2025. I think it’s doable. I also think it is a necessity.

Vice President of Strategic Enrollment Management Dr. Jason Reinoehl and his team have done good and important work over the past year to work with the ATI staff to set our goals as part of the collective and to share some of our own innovative practices, including the Flyer Promise program, the UD-Sinclair Academy, and the no-fee, fixed-net-tuition program. As a result of our enthusiastic embrace of the ATI mission and this advance work, when I arrived at the Bloomberg offices last week for the annual meeting of presidents, I was warmly welcomed. It was clear that the initiative’s leaders have developed considerable respect for UD.

The daylong meeting was simply terrific for a variety of reasons, including the exceptional analytics work of Aspen and Ithaka and the diversity of institutions whose presidents took the time to be in attendance — from Princeton and Harvard to Davidson and Franklin & Marshall to Michigan and Ohio State. And our very own University of Dayton.

The varying perspectives — from big and small (50,000 to 1,000), public and private, hyper-elite and competitive — enriched our conversations. We listened to each other and openly shared our observations, hopes, and concerns in an honest, transparent forum.

To borrow from “Hamilton,” I felt like I was in the “room where it happens.” The degree of commitment of these higher-ed leaders is inspiring, the set of practices in place and under development across the country is promising, and the combined power of these universities and colleges is overwhelming.

The effort to ensure that, as a society, we educate lower- and moderate-income Americans is essential to our freedoms and our future. We must succeed as a collective, and UD must succeed individually in what is an important race for talent.

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