In an updated version of an old joke, four Washington policy types are having dinner together.  During the pause before coffee and dessert, God appears and offers to answer one question from each of them.  “When,” asks the first wonk, “will we have racial harmony in our cities?”  “Not in your lifetime” replies God.  “When will we pay off the national debt?” asks the second wonk.  “Not in your lifetime,” God answers.  “When will there be peace in the Middle East?” inquires the third wonk.  Once again, God replies, “Not in your lifetime.”

For his question, the fourth wonk chooses the one on the cover of Indicators of Higher Education Equity In The United States: 45 Year Trend Report, recently released by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education:  “When will the U.S. close the gap in higher education attainment by family income?” God thinks for a moment, then replies, “Not in my lifetime.”

Well, maybe it won’t take that long.  But nothing in the Pell Institute report affords grounds for much optimism that the gap will be closed or substantially narrowed anytime soon.  For 1970, for example, Pell Institute figures show a 46 percentage point gap between the college continuation rate for the top quartile of families, arranged by income, and the bottom.  Forty-two years later, the gap was 37 points.  A nine-point gain in 42 years: At that rate, the gap should be closed in about 173 years.

Or take bachelor’s degree attainment.  In 1970, a 34 percentage-point gap between the top and bottom quartiles; in 2013, the gap had doubled to 68 points.  But take heart.  With the top quartile’s rate capped at 100 percent, a milestone it should reach, at its rate of increase over the past 43 years, by 2040, the bottom quartile of families, at its rate of increase since 1970, will catch up in 1300 years, by 3313—about a century after the conclusion of the time frame projected by Star Trek: Enterprise.

If anything, the report’s shallow-to-flat-to-negative trend lines actually understate the dilemma for low-income students.  A forty-plus-year time span is one useful way of measuring progress.  But in real life, students confront a 4-6-year timeline, the time it takes them to go through college.  Any other time frame is all but meaningless to their educational progress.

Of course, there’s no law that says that federal and state governments can’t increase their investment in educating low-income students.

Actually, there are such laws, the laws that set levels of government support for state universities and Pell grant scholarships.  So, for example, 29 of the 50 states have decreased their total funding of state colleges and universities, according to the New America Foundation; 44 of 50 decreased per-pupil support. And, as Indicators documents, “the percent of average college costs covered by the maximum Pell Grant declined by 40 percentage points – from a high of 67 percent in 1975 to a low of 27 percent in 2012.”

But those laws could be changed.  Which is what Pell Institute director Margaret Cahalan, this report’s co-author, recommends in her concluding essay,  “Sixteen Strategies for Widening Equity of Participation in Higher Education in the United States: Reflections from International Comparisons”: ”Restor[e] Public Funding at the Federal, State, and Local levels to Earlier Levels Including Restoring Pell Grants to Their Former Buying Power.”

But does anyone think that state legislatures, or a Congress controlled by starve-the-beast conservatives, will restore those billions of dollars of cuts—or make any of Cahalan’s other sensible investments in educating low-income students, most proven in other countries–anytime soon?

That leaves strategies that don’t require such large funding outlays, and Cahalan includes several of those among her “Sixteen Strategies,” things like “Supporting Competency-Mastery Based Learning and Recognition of Prior Learning…,” “Listening to What Students Are Telling Us” and “Taking an Integrated and Holistic Approach to Student Services and Institutional Access Plans.”

They would all help.  But would any or all of them reverse downward trends or accelerate weak upward ones enough to close the gap?  Doesn’t seem likely. Like other societal needs, the prospects for supplying the public resources needed to narrow the college-attainment gap between rich and poor seem dim, at least for the next several election cycles.

To recognize that reality is not a counsel of despair. But it does point to the need for an alternate path to closing the college completion gap.  The road to, if not closing, at least narrowing the college attainment gap may need to start, not when students start college, but when they start kindergarten.

In fact Indicators also recognizes, in a grab-bag section entitled “Other Factors Affecting Equity” the importance of an obstacle to low-income college completion comparable in importance to paying college costs:

Achieving equity in attainment will require eliminating gaps not only in college enrollment, choice, and completion, but also in other critical outcomes, including completion of a rigorous academic curricular program…In order to enroll and succeed in college, all individuals must graduate from high school academically ready for college-level work.

Of course, all individuals are not now graduating from high school college-ready.  In 2013, ACT reports, 45 percent of students from families with incomes under $36,000 were college-ready in reading, compared to 84 percent for families with incomes over $100,000, a gap of 39 percentage points.  In math, the gap is 42 points, in reading 37 points, and science 39 points.  The racial gap is comparable: 28 percent of all white students tested college-ready in all four subject areas; African Americans: 4 percent.

The consequence: While almost twenty percent of all entering freshmen at four-year colleges must take remedial or developmental courses to make up for content they should have been taught in high school, the figure is about 32 percent for low-income students; and 39 percent for African Americans, 20 percent for Hispanic Americans, and just 13.6 percent for white students—for courses for which they pay college tuition but receive no college credit.  Worse yet, fewer than four of ten students who take remedial courses graduate from college in six years; one in four don’t even complete the remedial courses.

But although the lack of financial support for college education bears comparable responsibility with K-12 deficiencies for the completion gap, there is a difference in the two factors’ amenability to improvement: K-12 reform has been fermenting for more than a quarter-century and is still bubbling.  The nation has been awakened to the need to improve the education that low-income students receive before college, and an active debate is going on.  Teach For America, charter schools, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Race To the Top. Education reform is channeling FDR’s dictum:  Try something.   If it fails, try something else.  But above all, try something.  No such zeitgeist, no comparable energy, no potential for real improvement obtains in higher education policy.

Congress could make college readiness, rather than just high school graduation, the objective of federal K-12 policy.  Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, a/k/a the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), appears to be on a glide path toward floor debate in the Senate So, as it happens, is the Higher Education Act.  In a just world, Senate HELP Committee chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash) would recognize that K-12 and post-secondary policy are inextricably linked and join the two pieces of legislation together.  That won’t happen.

But even more important than crossing our fingers for Senate action—and more promising than the snowball’s-chance-in-hell of constructive action in the House—is to act on the aspect of the issue that can be affected, by tapping into the existing momentum of K-12 reform.  State by state and city by city, charter schools, standardized testing, the Common Core curriculum and the rest of the education reform agenda will be implemented, refined, and will succeed—or they won’t and will fall by the wayside to be replaced, as FDR advocated, by something else.

Restoring the buying power of Pell Grants, increasing state support for public universities, and the other sensible dollar-sign-bearing recommendations in the Pell Institute report will stay on the back burner. But increasing college completion rates by increasing college readiness is ready to go.

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