How Can Higher Education Become A Stronger Pathway To The American Dream?

How Can Higher Education Become A Stronger Pathway To The American Dream?

BridgeEdU attended the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U’s) 104th annual conference earlier this month and listened as industry leaders discussed whether higher education still has a role in the American Dream. The conference kicked off in an open auditorium, with a panel discussing the question on the front of everyone’s program: “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?” Suggestions ranged from increasing financial literacy training for students to redesigning learning assessment tools. Although attendees had different thoughts about this topic, several common themes emerged.


Below are the top four challenges conference attendees identified to making higher education a stronger pathway to the American Dream:

1. The Need for Better K-12 Skill Preparation

Students are entering college classrooms without retaining the basic K-12 skills they need for success. This gap creates a burden on higher education to bridge the disconnect, which conference goers identified as a need for change. Whether it comes from remedial interventions before and during college entry, collaborating with K-12 institutions, or incorporating coaching, students must have the skills to feel capable and perform successfully in their classes.

The solutions offered included supporting current students and addressing systemic barriers to equitable skill acquisition. The discussion made clear that continuing an inequitable cycle of college barriers was not an option for attendees. Upholding certain levels of skill proficiency was still a concern, but conversations revealed the need to correct for systemic barriers to skill acquisition that keep motivated students from furthering their education.


2. Keeping Higher Education Relevant

“Are we relevant to our students?” Conference goers expressed urgent concern about developing higher-impact content and classroom practices, especially in the online learning space. Though educational benefits are not always obvious, engaging content is necessary for meaningful classroom experiences. To that end, there is an obvious need for less prescriptive instructional and curricular approaches in higher education.

Even if the class content is ultimately useful, students need opportunities to develop agency and purpose in their learning so that skills stick. Ross Peterson-Veatch of Goshen College likened unapplied knowledge to throwing a bunch of clothes at someone without providing hangers or a clothing rack.

Higher education needs to provide more opportunities for students to apply what they’ve learned in the real world. Conference attendees recommended creating more intentional dialogues about academic missions and developing portfolio assessments to help students better align learning with personal aspirations. Additionally, participants proposed bringing students into higher ed brainstorming spaces, like conferences, so they are empowered to envision and communicate their educational goals.


3. Higher Education Must Prioritize Civic Learning and Social Responsibility

A majority of attendees we spoke to agreed that higher education does not adequately teach civic engagement. Education’s role in society extends beyond career-related skills training. Life, work, citizenship, and higher education must align, according to the conference’s speakers, to prepare students to be engaged citizens. Prioritizing social responsibility and character development came up time and again in conversation and conference breakout sessions by speakers and guests alike. Wes Moore, BridgeEdU’s founder, spoke to this shared sentiment during his meeting, The Transformative Power of Education, “We do not need more people with degrees. We don’t need a better GPA; we need a better GPS.” Purpose needs to drive learning.

Grading that values metacognitive and diverse thinking, curriculums that guide civil discourse and digital citizenship, and exploring shared governance models were all solutions participants raised as ways to encourage civic engagement and develop social responsibility on campus.


4. Increasing Equity in Higher Education

Improving access to quality higher education was a unanimous priority at AAC&U 2018. Intentionally designing inclusive learning communities, beginning with lowering college cost burden was high on nearly everyone’s agenda.

Participants suggested that faculty should consider costs when selecting course textbooks and look for less expensive alternatives. Professors, administrators, and researchers also proposed institutions do more to raise student financial literacy so they understand and can adequately plan for full college attendance costs, and to work toward making college free ultimately.

But the issue ran deeper than removing financial barriers. Simply increasing access does not address the opportunity gaps vulnerable students face. Several school administrators working to improve campus diversity shared that it’s not only about getting students in the door, or even about having enough funding to support them- it’s figuring out how to identify and provide the resources and guidance students need. Students are not only entering college without understanding the financial responsibility they are taking on, but also lacking the mindset, social capital, and study skills needed for success. There is no single answer to this challenge, but speakers and attendees agreed that the industry must continue developing evidence-based educational practices and programs that support a diverse and thriving campus.



“How Can Higher Education Become a Stronger Pathway to the American Dream?”

Full Attendee Response List:

  1. “Provide Interdisciplinary study to augment academics in preparation to centralize a student’s working knowledge.”
  2. “Help students develop and clearly DEFINE practical pathways to their goals.”
  3. “Stop focusing on short-term ‘cost’ of education and worry more about the quality of education and development of life skills.”
  4. “Systemic infrastructure must inclusively support student success.”
  5. “Help students build confidence in their vision.”
  6. “Recognize the importance of social capital in achieving success & teaching strategies to develop it.”
  7. “Focus on problem-solving.”
  8. “Growing OER use. Open pedagogy.”
  9. “Make education affordable to students from all backgrounds and make sure the institutions support the success of ALL students.”
  10. “Is there a common American Dream?”
  11. “Free college for all students.”
  12. “Support colleges in urban areas.”
  13. “Bring local communities into the educational experience.”
  14. “College affordability ”
  15. “I am tasked with sowing the seeds of possibility. Helping students feel they are not only worthy but capable, through higher ed, of being our next generation of leaders.”
  16. “Anti white-supremacy pedagogy.”
  17. “Social responsibility should be priority, not degrees”
  18. “Learn social networking skills”
  19. “Access+Support = Thriving Presence”
  20. “Are we relevant to our students (background, content+context, theory vs. practice)”
  21. “K-12 needs to evolve so students are prepared for higher ed”
  22. “Teaching financial responsibility”
  23. “Lower tuition cost”
  24. “Better recognition of our administrators, faculty, & students cultural and linguistic capital”
  25. “Need students here and helping us learn what they need”
  26. “Recognize there is more than one ‘American Dream’”
  27. “Help students connect experiences in college to their future”
  28. “If we wanted to achieve equity and success for all students, we could do it. We know how- we’re too tied to students who reproduce inequality.”
  29. “Bring together disparate groups so they can all learn.”
  30. “Focus on the school’s original mission and the constituents we serve.”
  31. “Decrease the financial responsibility of students.”
  32. “Help give experiences that provide a better platform for knowledge integration… process experiences into a narrative.”
  33. “Be part of the solution.”
  34. “Student loans need to be controlled… that begins by controlling cost.”
  35. “Know what’s available for students and help connect them to the resources that will serve their goals.”
  36. “Space for reflective dialogue and unpacking assumptions.”
  37. “Expand the American Dream’s cultural narrative beyond individual economic outcomes to include purpose, fulfillment, etc.”
  38. “Improve reading, writing, and math skills.”
  39. “More real-world projects to engage and motivate learning.”
  40. “Allows for upward mobility that is not otherwise available.”
  41. “Making high impact practice more accessible and easier to navigate.”
  42. “It promotes creativity and diversity of thought. It prepares students to be problem-solvers, problem-identifiers, meta-thinkers, and socially responsible. These qualities lend themselves to a better American life”