Let’s pay more attention to the colleges that educate the vast majority of Americans

There are approximately 2,800 public and non-profit private four-year colleges and universities in the United States. But as we await the Supreme Court’s decision on the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the nation’s gaze narrows once again to the most elite and picky 100 institutions: the so-called top 5 percent.

Administrators at these top-tier colleges, along with college counselors at elite high schools, are strategizing how to deal with what many are anticipating to be a radical change in the admissions landscape.

Undoubtedly, the stakes are high for a small group of students and institutions. For the vast majority of prospective college students in this country, however, none of this recent hand-wringing is relevant.

Let’s not forget that the highest-ranking and wealthiest institutions educate less than 5 percent of those pursuing a post-secondary degree.

In fact, for most students, the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action will be largely irrelevant to college success. Let’s not forget that the highest-ranking and wealthiest institutions educate less than 5 percent of those pursuing a post-secondary degree.

Nonetheless, elite institutions continue to attract excessive attention in discussions of inequality in higher education. These colleges and universities are regularly challenged to improve access for low-income students, rethink admissions processes, and provide better support to the communities in which they are located.

Undoubtedly, the social injustices and socioeconomic disparities that plague our country are reflected in the status and resources of our elite institutions. Some argue that the answer to these challenges should be to increase access to elite institutions for students from marginalized and otherwise underfunded communities.

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Indeed, certain evidence suggests that an elite institution can transform the lives of such students, although other studies show that elite spaces exacerbate marginalization. Notably, expanding the number of classes entering elite institutions would only affect a small number of students.

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We can do that much better. Instead, we should focus on meeting the needs of the other 95 percent of institutions that actually educate the vast majority of college students.

The other 95 percent serves a diverse group, including older students, veterans, and parents and caregivers. Students, accounting for 95 percent, are typically looking for affordable education and are reluctant to go into debt for higher education.

They’re also looking for convenience: a safe and affordable way to get to campus or study online or in a hybrid format, and a schedule that allows them to continue working full-time or part-time. Their ultimate goal is often to change their life path by getting a well-paying job that they wouldn’t get without a degree.

These students value dedicated support (counselling, career development services) when they need it, and tutors, quality programs, and professors who care about their success.

Fostering excellence at non-elite institutions – which serve nearly all of our post-secondary students – holds enormous promise for improving undergraduate and graduation outcomes.

Non-elite institutions include regional four-year colleges and universities, many of which offer comprehensive services and have dedicated faculty and staff who have demonstrated the ability to serve their students more effectively and help them pass and graduate . Many also have a passion for the potential of education to transform underserved individuals and communities.

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In Michigan, for example, Grand Valley State University’s equity-focused REP4 program (in collaboration with other regional colleges across the US) empowers students to design and implement new and better approaches to learning and support.

In Pennsylvania, Cheyney University, a small HBCU, hosts start-up biotech companies in its science building, where the growing start-ups engage students in learning and research.

Access to elite institutions is not important for the vast majority of students. It’s because so many cannot get the affordable and convenient education they desire. That’s why it’s time to stop obsessing over what the pickiest colleges are doing and start learning from the other 95 percent and investing in their success.

Julie Wollman is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously served as President of Widener University and Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. Jacqueline M. Wallis is a Ph.D. Philosophy student at the University of Pennsylvania.

This elite college story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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