In education, reform tends to follow cycles, often bouncing from one extreme to another without considering the possibility of incorporating multiple perspectives simultaneously. Policies aimed at helping more underrepresented students enter college and complete degrees have bounced from one pole to another, embracing access as the primary goal without giving adequate attention to successful completion, which results in many underrepresented students coming through the campus gate but relatively few leaving with degrees.
There has been considerable publicity lately about the U.S.'s declining rankings in international comparisons of young people with college degrees. Today, we are not among the top 10 developed countries for degree attainment, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with flat completion rates placing us so low in the rankings. Americans are waking up to the fact that something must be done to increase the rate at which our youth gain degrees--especially youth of color--if the U.S. is to remain competitive in international markets. lust 21 percent of African Americans and an appalling 12 percent of Latinos have completed a degree by age 29. The Obama administration has set an ambitious goal for the U.S. to lead the world in the percentage of adults with a college degree by 2020, but this will require that we pay attention to both access and success in ways that we haven't before.
Breaking Down Barriers
Much of the first half of the 20th century was characterized by a long march toward providing equal access to a basic education to African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and, to some extent, Asian students. Up to midcentury, these groups fought just to gain access to schools with equal resources. Importantly, many of the court rulings that resulted in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which promised access to the same schools for all children regardless of color, were decisions about access in higher education, such as the Sweat* v. Painter decision of 1950 that opened access to the University of Texas law school for students of color. Having been denied access to an equal education, it was logical that all efforts would be concentrated on the access issue during this period, culminating in Brown, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Higher Education Act and the creation of Work-Study under the War on Poverty. The barriers were supposed to fall and the students were to have the resources to enroll.
By 1975-76, an African-American or Latino high school graduate had an equal chance of attending college as a White high school graduate. The civil rights era shone a light on the yawning gaps in educational attainment that existed between White students and students of color, and the mid- to late-1960s and mid-1970s saw a strong focus on the importance of access to higher education, including opening the segregated public universities in the South and creating tribal colleges for Indian nations to help narrow those gaps. Almost all selective universities adopted affirmative action. Nonetheless, by 1975 only 15 percent of non-White young adults held college degrees compared with 24 percent for White students. It would take time, though, before the challenge of college completion became a focal point in struggles for equality.
Forty years ago the focus was on providing more equality of opportunity through affirmative action and other strategies to increase access to college. And it worked. However, by the early 1980s it became clear that access was not enough. Students of color entered college at all-time-high rates but they were too often not completing degrees. This fact stimulated competing responses between conservatives and progressives. On one hand, social conservatives argued that the students should not have been admitted because they weren't prepared, which was the reason …