It's All about Access: Catholic Colleges and Universities Open Their Doors to Underserved Students

Article excerpt

A recently released report warns that America's persistent disparity in access to postsecondary education is eroding the country's competitive edge in the world. Do Catholic colleges and universities deserve to be a part of these criticisms? Or can they provide a map toward improvement?

"Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education," the fifth such report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education since 2000, predicts that a lack of access for the poor and some minorities will affect the whole country

"To make significant headway in increasing the educational attainment of its population and thereby its comparative standing internationally, the United States must address disparities in educational opportunity and achievement among Americans," writes Patrick M. Callan, the center's president. "These persistent gaps must be closed if the United States is to meet its workforce needs and compete globally."

The report grades the United States and each individual state on six criteria: preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits and learning. In certain categories, some states are doing pretty well. In preparing students for college, for instance, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont each received an "A." On the other hand, every state except California received an "F" on affordability. Completion of college was a mixed bag, with Iowa leading the nation while Alaska and Nevada each received an "F."

Grading states' performances is a good way to gain media attention, but it's the report card's statistics on economic and race disparities that highlight the main issue.

Some examples:

* The national high-school graduation rate was 77.5 percent, but only 69.1 percent for African Americans and 72.3 percent for Hispanics.

* White students complete a bachelor's degree six years after high school at a rate of 59 percent, while Hispanics lag at 47 percent, African Americans at 41 percent and Native Americans at 39 percent.

* State-by-state disparities can be even more shocking. For instance, 50 percent of white adults age 18-24 are enrolled in college in New York, compared to 34 percent of African-American students. Forty percent of white adults age 18-24 in Arizona are enrolled in college, while a mere 18 percent of Hispanics and Native Americans are.

"Given our relative decline internationally and the gaps in higher education performance within our borders," the report says, "no state can afford to maintain the status quo."

Private schools are pinpointed as part of the problem when it comes to affordability. In New York and Pennsylvania, for instance, families would have to pay 69 to 87 percent of their annual income to send a student to private school. That's after financial aid, and the remainder is most often covered by using savings or taking out loans.

According to the Department of Education, Catholic institutions enroll about 25 percent of all private college and university students. So the correlation might seem clear that Catholic schools are part of the affordability problem.

On the other hand, Catholic colleges have traditionally been very cognizant of the needs of the poor and underrepresented. Many schools were founded to educate immigrants, mostly Catholic at the time, who had few options for an education. That mission continues, said Richard A. Yanikoski, president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

"Catholic colleges and universities have a long history, based on their Catholic mission, of preferential option for the poor," Yanikoski said, "and often more specifically on the charism of a founding religious community, to address persistent disparities in access."

When you get past the numbers, you see a dedication by Catholic institutions to address disparities at the ground level, said Yanikoski. …