By John R. Broderick and Ellen J. Neufeldt
The General Assembly passed legislation investing hundreds of millions of dollars in higher education to create enough graduates to fill the 25,000-plus jobs being created at Amazon’s new headquarters, along with Micron Technology and other high-tech firms that are sure to follow.
This opportunity requires a long-needed paradigm shift to provide access and support to more low-income students. The result will be a continuous pipeline of graduates and an upward trend in social mobility — the ability for students in the bottom 20% of household incomes to graduate college and move into high-paying jobs — for thousands of Virginians. Removing the economic roadblock will increase the number of qualified graduates and broaden workplace diversity.
To facilitate this shift, Old Dominion University’s Center for Social Mobility partnered with the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia to convene a workshop for Virginia universities. This was followed by a national symposium at the center that hosted representatives from institutions across the country.
Experts discussed changes needed to make education accessible and upward social mobility a reality for more people. They warned that trends are moving in the wrong direction. At the symposium, Wil del Pilar, vice president for higher education at Education Trust, reported on “The State of Higher Education Equity” study, which shows African American and Latino adults are less likely to hold a college degree today than white American adults were in 1990 — nearly 30 years ago. Also, today African American adults are two-thirds as likely to hold a college degree as white Americans, and Latinos are only half as likely.
These trends exacerbate the racial income gap, perpetuate the cycle of poverty and leave well-paying jobs unfilled. Continuing on this path is untenable. As population growth among people of color continues to outpace that of white Americans and baby boomers exit the workforce, policy leaders must work to increase underrepresented students with college degrees and close racial gaps.
The symposium identified a multipronged strategy to help eliminate these inequities. First is the need for key academic and support programs, such as targeted success coaching, as well as financial resources that address the total cost of attendance.
Secondly, higher education institutions must commit to supporting these students, many of whom have no college graduates in their family. Implementing programs such as Brother2Brother, in which African American and Latino students tutor one another and act as a support group; student work and internship programs, which help students gain career experience, earn money and feel connected to the university; and programs that pair first-generation students with first-generation faculty mentors can lead to dramatic increases in graduation rates.
At Old Dominion, these types of student success programs have not only resulted in reversing national achievement gap trends, but also in the university ranking in the top 15% of the nation’s institutions in CollegeNET’s Social Mobility Index.
The third component in the social mobility strategy requires an emphasis on STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and health care) disciplines to produce graduates ready to fill jobs in the knowledge economy. Partnerships among business, industry, and elementary and high schools expose young people to potential career paths.
It is our obligation, particularly at public universities, to enhance social mobility for the students we serve. By removing barriers to higher education and preparing students for STEM-H jobs, institutions will not only increase economic opportunity and social mobility, but also ensure that the jobs of the future are filled by a well-educated, career-ready and diverse workforce.