Breaking Down Barriers to Equity in Higher Education: Q&A with Terry Vaughan and Laura W. Perna on the 2024 Equity Indicators Report

The following discussion between Pell Institute Director Terry Vaughan, III and the University of Pennsylvania Vice Provost for Faculty Laura Perna highlights the complexities of achieving equity in higher education and offers insights into how policy changes at various levels can address socioeconomic barriers, improve the effectiveness of Pell Grants, and enhance overall access and attainment. The conversation underscores the importance of data-driven policies, comprehensive financial aid strategies, and a collaborative approach to create meaningful change. 

Terry Vaughan: One of the key focuses of the Equity Indicators report is on who enrolls in postsecondary education and the paradox that postsecondary institutions both create and limit societal opportunities for students despite good intentions. For example, we continue to see that students from the wealthiest families enroll in college more often than students from lower-income backgrounds. Specifically, 79% of 18-to-24-year-olds from the highest income quartile enroll in college compared to only 44% from the lowest quartile. How can policy changes at the institutional and governmental levels contribute to equalizing access to higher education? 

Laura W. Perna: There’s a wealth of data in this year’s Equity Indicators report, and I appreciate that we have access to it on behalf of the field. You frame this question as if there might be a simple answer, but of course, there isn’t. This is part of the reason why these gaps persist over time. Unfortunately, there’s no single solution to this problem. It’s important to interrogate the data more deeply. We all need to think about what the data tells us about the overall trends and continue to probe. The report has valuable data on national patterns, and illustrates the differences across states. Higher education opportunities in the U.S. depend on where you live—your state and your community within that state. It’s crucial to understand the local conditions influencing college attendance. The Equity Indicators report has extensive information about the cost-related factors affecting college-going. There are also other factors, like academic preparation, access to rigorous courses, and access to counselors. We need to think about how these and other elements play out for different groups in different places. 

Terry Vaughan: Our second Equity Indicator examines who enrolls in college. The report looks at what types of postsecondary institutions students attend and where they attend. We highlight an inverse relationship between institutional selectivity and the percentage of Pell Grant recipients. For example, 28% of Pell Grant recipients attend the most competitive institutions, while 73% attend the least competitive ones. What implications does this have for social mobility, equity, and higher education? Moreover, what measures can be taken to ensure that Pell Grants more effectively support students attending both highly selective and less selective institutions? 

Laura W. Perna: We must pay attention to where students are enrolled. The differences in the representation of Pell Grant recipients across institutions based on selectivity are striking and point to structural factors that influence who has access to what types of higher education. Enrollment matters, but completion is also essential. Time to degree also matters, as each additional year of enrollment is another year of time and money. The resources available to students at different institutions are critical. Regarding Pell Grants, I’ve been thinking about the role of College Promise and free tuition programs. These programs could help us think about how various financial aid mechanisms fit together. Research consistently shows that grants positively impact student outcomes, including enrollment, persistence, and completion. Pell Grants are essential for low-income students, but they cover only a fraction of the cost of attendance. We need to consider how different types of state grants, institutional grants, and Promise programs layer on top of Pell Grants. How do all these sources of financial aid come together to influence higher education opportunities? 

Terry Vaughan: Let’s continue with financial aid. Once students are in college, the question of how they will pay and what type of financial aid they’ll receive becomes even more pressing. The Pell Grant, which is supposed to help students pay for college, only covers about 25% of the average cost. What equity-based funding revisions or expansions should be considered to make higher education more accessible and affordable for low-income students? 

Laura W. Perna: States have different approaches to financing higher education. They need to pay attention to tuition and other costs, especially for students from low-income families. We need to recognize that students are working hard to cover not only the costs of tuition, books, supplies, and transportation, but also the cost of living while they’re enrolled. College Promise programs often cover only tuition and don’t provide much new aid to low-income students. We need to rethink these models to help low-income students pay the full cost of college. The data in the Equity Indicators report about student loans, the amount borrowed, and the racial aspects of student loan debt are also very important and highlight the need to do better and differently. 

Terry Vaughan: States can make a significant difference in terms of equity-based funding models. What do you think about the discourse on the value of credentials? How does that play into motivating state leaders and institutional leaders to consider these changes? 

Laura W. Perna: It’s an interesting question. People decide to go to college based on their perception of its value, and policymakers make decisions based on these perceptions. Reports show that economic and workforce development is a top concern for state policymakers. There’s a recognition of the need for postsecondary education, but how we ensure all people have access to workforce readiness is crucial. The problems with the FAFSA rollout are concerning. While the changes may be beneficial in the long term, they currently pose challenges, especially for low-income families who may not trust the system or understand the importance of completing the FAFSA to access federal and state aid. We need to communicate the value of higher education, especially to first-generation college students and those in communities where college-going isn’t the norm or where people have seen others start college but not finish. We must help people understand the value and deliver on it. 

Terry Vaughan: Communicating the value of higher education to families, students, and state leaders is crucial. It can impact economic mobility and state goals. College attainment is another key focus of the Indicators Report. We see that bachelor’s degree attainment rates are higher for students from the highest-income families than for those from the lowest-income families—almost four times higher. We also see a growing divide in attainment rates across states. What innovative federal, state, or institutional strategies could be implemented to close the educational attainment gap, whether based on student demographics or state-to-state comparisons? Data-driven policies—what do you think about that? 

Laura W. Perna: We need data-driven policies and must consider how our higher education system connects to K-12 education and how different higher education institutions connect. Bachelor’s degree completion is influenced by many factors, including academic readiness when students enter college. Some College Promise programs aim to create smooth pathways from high school to community college and then to a four-year institution. Despite efforts to facilitate transfer from two-year to four-year colleges, many students still lose credits or get lost in the process. We need to pay attention not only to the nature of the college experience but also the ability of students to smoothly transition between institutions. 

Terry Vaughan: What pathways are being created within higher education institutions to make the process seamless for students? Do you have any final thoughts or key takeaways for the audience? 

Laura W. Perna: It’s essential to have the data in the Equity Indicators report and to build conversations around it. Creating dialogue has been a commitment of the Pell Institute and those involved in this report for several years. We should all feel like we’re in this together, as there’s no single solution. We need everyone to understand the problem, think about it, and create innovative effective solutions. From a scholar’s perspective, I consider the roles of state and federal policy, institutions, and community members. Solving this issue requires everyone to work together because what we’re doing now isn’t enough. 

Terry Vaughan: How do you anticipate the current challenges with FAFSA completion will impact equity outcomes in higher education in the near future? 

Laura W. Perna: I’m really worried about the consequences. People who started completing the FAFSA but stopped because of technical challenges, and those who hear about the challenges, might lose trust in the government’s support. The problems with the rollout of the new FAFSA also add another layer of difficulty for TRIO programs, school counselors, and community members trying to help students. We need a strategy to rebuild trust and engagement once we resolve these issues. 

Laura Perna is a leading researcher on educational issues and policies. She serves as the Vice Provost for Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a longtime partner with the Pell Institute in developing our Indicators report. 

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