College acceptances and rejections—those letters upon which millions of high school seniors place their highest hopes—are currently pouring into American homes. This year they are arriving under a cloud of suspicion as a result of the college admissions scandal. While politicians feigned disbelief and members of the Illuminati clutched their pearls, those of us working to expand college access in the 21st century greeted
Operation Varsity Blues with a nod of recognition. I lead
Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of K-12 systems leaders who collectively serve more than seven million students. Our superintendents and state chiefs know the daunting labyrinth that even the best-prepared and most-advantaged students face in the college application process and once they arrive on campus. That maze can be even more challenging for the millions who need a thoughtful set of financial and academic supports to gain admission and earn a degree. While we wring our hands about the games being played with golden tickets to “the best colleges and universities,” we should remember that they sit atop a system that is itself diseased. The infection begins with an admissions process that asks students, “Are you worthy?” rather than “How can we help?” It then spreads due to a lack of transparency about how students persist in school and whether they graduate. The truth is that while one wishes the parents caught up in this scandal had an ounce of moral integrity, the logic of the system we use to control access to vast amounts of social and economic capital almost guaranteed that this would happen. And the shaming—or even incarceration—of a few wealthy parents, B-list celebrities and various coaches of water polo, crew, soccer, sailing and (one would presume) squash, is unlikely to, by itself, convince even a single institution of higher education to find religion and change course, let alone change the system at large.
We Must Rethink All of Higher Education, Not Just Admissions
We need nothing short of a new social compact with colleges and universities. We need to fundamentally rethink the way higher education works in America. And that is what the leaders in Chiefs for Change are doing. First, we are calling on federal and state lawmakers to require high schools and colleges to work together and track what happens to all students after they leave high school. We need the full picture of college enrollment, persistence and completion, plus employment and earnings data for all high school graduates, tied to individual high schools, school districts, colleges and universities, across all 50 states. It is important to be able to slice this data and analyze it by key demographics. Only when we have this full picture will we have a greater understanding of how to design high schools to set up all students for lifelong success. Second, we are calling for better postsecondary pathways for every graduate, including low- and no-debt options. Our chiefs are ready to work with colleges, universities, employers and training providers to establish new and better career pathways for all students. We must create innovative approaches such as competency-based pathways to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, combine online flexibility with in-person advisory supports and offer ongoing opportunities to earn industry-recognized certifications. Lastly, we are calling on every postsecondary provider and institution of higher education—wherever they happen to fall in the U.S News and World Report rankings—to keep their eyes on equitable access to college, ensuring admitted students complete degrees and fostering their successful transition to meaningful work. Following through on these recommendations may not change elite institutions and the prerogatives of wealthy parents overnight. But it will create a new deal for the vast majority of American students.