Higher Education Models Must Serve ALL Students — A Response to a Recent NYTimes Article

In her recent New York Times article, “Why Poor Students Struggle,” Vicki Madden draws attention to the challenges lower-income students face in graduating from four-year colleges. She points out that — beyond financial limitations and lack of academic preparation — social alienation and, as she puts it, “the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from” play a considerable role in putting graduation out of reach for many lower-income students.

At the Business Innovation Factory’s Student Experience Lab, we are all too familiar with this issue. Since 2006, we have been partnering with higher education leaders to research the experiences of postsecondary students, and to design and test new student-centered business models for higher education. It is clear that traditional higher education models do not sufficiently support all students. We need new models that are inclusive, affordable, and relevant to the lives of today’s students.

Like Madden, we have found that the transition to college can present profound difficulties for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Most undergraduate students contend with concerns like school choice and fit, affordability, and preparedness, but lower-income students must grapple with additional issues that interfere with their success. Instead of being able to focus solely on their studies, lower-income students also juggle job and family responsibilities. We found in research we conducted in partnership with the College Board that these competing pressures and non-academic responsibilities can isolate such students from their counterparts who are able to devote themselves to the academic and social aspects of the undergraduate experience.

Lower-income students of color face additional challenges. Overt racism can have devastating effects, as can the subtler cultural mismatches that many students of color face on traditional campuses. The resulting sense of disconnection can cause anxiety and distress, negatively impact academic performance, and pose a barrier to college completion.

We know that traditional higher education business models do not serve all students equally. The question is what we are going to do about it? Tech start-ups hope to revolutionize higher education, but to achieve the necessary pace and scale of change, existing large-scale institutions must develop the ability to test and implement new models. We need more higher education leaders who understand business model innovation, have the capability to deliver on the promise of transformation, and are ready to experiment and lead by example.

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