WASHINGTON – The University System of Maryland has signed on to a nationwide higher education plan, announced Wednesday, to control costs and close gaps in students’ access and performance.
The “Access to Success” plan, sponsored by the National Association of System Heads, seeks to narrow, by at least half, the gaps between low-income and minority students, and the rest of the student population, by the year 2015.
The rising cost of higher education is another area of concern, and the plan will try controlling increases to keep education affordable, said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
“If we can’t keep costs under tighter control, neither our families nor our state legislatures will be able to keep up,” he said in a statement. “We’ve already begun to analyze and control costs in Maryland, and the cross-system work of this initiative will help us do that better and smarter.”
Keeping the cost of attendance under control, he said, will ultimately mean more students will graduate.
“My state needs thousands more graduates than we’re producing right now in science, math, engineering, and education,” Kirwan said.
To help more students attend college, the plan will seek to eliminate the biggest “roadblocks” that keep students from advancing, and work more closely with K-12 institutions to make sure students are prepared for college.
Maryland’s university system faces an achievement gap among different races of students.
The graduation rate between the system’s white students, and its black and Hispanic students, is approximately 15 percentage points.
While the number of black students in the system has doubled in the past 15 years, a quarter of them drop out by their second year.
“Maryland’s high school graduates will be majority-minority students within the next two years,” Kirwan said. “We simply cannot meet the needs of our states without doing a better job with our under-represented minority students.”
Towson University has narrowed its gap significantly. The graduation rate for the class that entered in fall 2001 was 66.4 percent; the rate among black students in that same class was 65.8 percent.
“We think we’ve solved the problem,” said Lonnie McNew, Towson’s senior associate vice president for enrollment management.
Towson improved its student services and its financial aid program to close the gap.
It also adapted its admissions standards, McNew said, to better predict student success by relying less on standardized tests.
Kirwan has said Towson’s model could be helpful throughout the system.
The graduation rate within six years for white students nationwide is 59 percent, but only 41 percent for black and Hispanic students, according to The Education Trust, a backer of the Access to Success plan.
National data for low-income students are not reported, but The Education Trust said a lower percentage of low-income students attend college today than the percentage of high-income students that attended college 30 years ago.
“Increasing access and success for low-income and minority students doesn’t score any points in the popular college rankings, but it’s essential to restoring the promise of public higher education,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings endorsed the plan, saying it “intrigued” her, in a Wednesday morning news conference.
The plan, she said, is “really good work” on the part of college and university systems to be proactive about student access and performance, “particularly with our nation’s most disadvantaged kids.
“They’re holding themselves accountable, and I’m really excited about it.”
Maryland’s system is one of 19 nationwide to participate in the plan.
The 19 systems, NASH said, have more than 2 million undergraduates and make up about one-third of the minority and low-income students in four-year, public colleges in the United States.