Yes We Must Coalition Steps Up To Advocate for Needy Students — and Their Colleges

By Goldie Blumenstyk
March 25, 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Alarmed that the college-completion agenda and other national policy and financing debates overlook the special challenges of needy students and the institutions they attend, a coalition of colleges called Yes We Must is revving up to ensure that its concerns are not ignored.

The three-year-old Yes We Must, which has 32 members, is a coalition for private colleges no larger than 5,000 students where at least 50 percent of the undergraduates qualify for Pell Grants. Many of the current members also have small endowments and operate on tight budgets.

“The size and culture of our places makes us different,” said Gloria Nemerowicz, founder and president of the coalition. “The whole hierarchy of higher education works against our institutions.”

Ms. Nemerowicz, a past president of Pine Manor College, in Massachusetts, says Yes We Must will be deepening its advocacy for policies that take into account the needs of such colleges and their students.

We want “to get ourselves to the table,” she said in a telephone interview with The Chronicle on Saturday, following Yes We Must’s third annual planning meeting, at Paul Quinn College, in Dallas.

Yes We Must will hold its first national conference in April 2014.

Yes We Must’s plans to assume a higher profile come as good news to other advocates for needy students, like Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. Such students “need more champions,” she said, to help correct “the erroneous assumption that low-income students are getting the financial needs met in college.”

Ms. Asher took part in the Yes We Must meeting, speaking on, among other matters, how colleges can help students limit the amount they borrow for college. Her organization has found that nearly 90 percent of all students with Pell Grants carry student-loan debt when they graduate. According to the latest available data, the average debt of Pell Grant borrowers in 2008 was $24,800—$3,500 more than for students who never received a Pell Grant. About 40 percent of all students receive Pell Grants.

Mutual Assistance

With the help of a $150,000 planning grant from the Kresge Foundation, Yes We Must is also looking to expand its membership—another 128 institutions could qualify—and do more to help members develop staff exchanges and collaborations to improve services and save money. Many of the Yes We Must colleges, for example, have expertise in programs to help students stay in college, and in remedial education, notes Vinton Thompson, president of the Metropolitan College of New York, an early member. “There are models of operation within this coalition that we can demonstrate to other schools,” he said.

Already, his institution and the College of New Rochelle, another member, have begun offering joint library privileges for the convenience of each other’s students.

Mindful that many of their students are the first in their families to go to college and that many of them come from small towns, the members are also pondering plans for student-exchange programs. “Imagine a kid from Georgia, who’s never been out of Georgia, going for a semester in Boston,” Ms. Nemerowicz said.

Following the Dallas meeting, Yes We Must members said they also want to have more say about projects like the Obama administration’s new “College Scorecard,” and the new income-based repayment programs for student loans.

The Education Department and other advocates for such repayment plans worry that students who could benefit most from the new options don’t know about them. “One of the reasons they’re not aware is that it’s hard to understand,” said Ms. Nemerowicz. The coalition said it would work with the Education Department, which sent a staff member to the meeting, on developing more understandable materials.

The coalition is also looking to make some changes to the portion of the College Scorecard that lists colleges’ graduation rates using the standard federal formula—which counts only first-time, full-time students who graduate within six years. Many Yes We Must members enroll a high proportion of students who don’t fit that definition. Financially needy students are also more likely to take longer to graduate because they also need to balance school against work to earn money for themselves or their families. Yes We Must wants to help develop another metric that better represents “the work that we do, which is more nuanced,” said Ms. Nemerowicz.

Yet even using the standard six-year rate, the Yes We Must colleges “outperform what they’re predicted to do” by about nine percentage points, according to an analysis by Thomas G. Mortenson, a senior scholar with the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. The predicted rates for many of the colleges was in the range of 30 to 40 percent, but some of the colleges had rates that were 20 to 40 percentage points higher. The predicted graduation rate is a calculation used by some college-rankings guides that takes into account variables like the socioeconomic makeup and precollege academic achievements of the student body.

Widening Education Gap

Still, as Mr. Mortenson has reported in his own newsletter, Postsecondary Education Opportunity, students from rich families are still seven times as likely to have earned a bachelors degrees by age 24 in the American higher education system than those from poor families.

And that disparity has grown substantially over the past 40 years,

In 1970, the proportion of 24-year-olds from the lowest quartile of family income with a bachelor’s degree was 6.2 percent, while in the wealthiest quartile it was about 40 percent. By 2010, the proportion of bachelor’s-degree holders among the highest quartile had grown to more than 71 percent, but was only 10.4 percent for 24-year-olds in the lowest quartile. The disparity exists even though the proportion of students from the lowest quartile graduating from high school has increased from about 62 percent in 1970 to nearly 72 percent in 2010.

Or, as another analysis by the institute shows, between 1980 and 2011, the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded to 24-year-olds from the bottom 50 percent by family income (incomes below $63,125 in 2011) fell from 27.4 percent to 22.2 percent while the proportion earned by those from the top quartile rose from 44.3 percent to 54 percent.

Mr. Mortenson said the results of those analyses are one of the reasons he has joined Yes We Must as an affiliate member, attended its Dallas meeting, and believes it has a role to play. “The interests of rich institutions are often not the same as poor institutions,” he said. Many Yes We Must institutions “are held together with tape and baling wire and a lot of prayers.” The percentage of students with Pell Grants at the wealthiest colleges is also much smaller than at Yes We Must colleges.

Coalition members say they hope the organization will help promote issues that matter to their students and help the colleges themselves do a better job. “We’d all like to raise our graduation rates and lower our tuition,” said David J. Fike, president of Marygrove College, in Detroit. “Nothing will happen if we continue to knock our individual heads against the wall.”

Percentage of Undergrads Receiving Pell Grants at Top 10 Wealthiest Universities