What Will the College Opportunity Summit Mean for Higher Education?

Today, the White House is hosting a second College Opportunity Summit, following up on a summit held in January that was roundly criticized for focusing on elite institutions. Both this summit and the previous summit involved colleges and other organizations making pledges designed to improve college access and completion rates, particularly for underrepresented populations and in STEM. The first round of pledges (and progress made) and the second round of pledges can both be found on the White House’s website.

Several hundred people, including administrators, policy analysts, and researchers, are at today’s summit, which has the potential to generate useful discussions. But it could also be the case that the discussion turns into a stereotypical academic conference, where a lot of items are discussed but no action is ever taken. So what could the summit mean for higher education?

The first thing that jumps out from the list of pledges is the sheer number. The list contains over 600 actions that colleges, associations, and other organizations plan to take—which is admirable. But as a researcher, two key questions should be considered:

(1) Would colleges and organizations have adopted these policies even without a formal pledge? In research language, this is known as the counterfactual—considering what would have happened in the absence of the policy being studied. This list could represent a list of things that colleges already planned to do (but they get good PR and tickets to the White House tree lighting), or this could be a result of colleges setting new goals as a result of the White House’s call for commitments. When considering the impact of this summit, researchers should talk to some college administrators (while promising confidentiality) to see if the pledges were policies already being planned or a new development.

(2) Will these pledges improve student outcomes? This involves thinking carefully about program design and data collection, so it is possible to use experimental or quasi-experimental methods combined with in-depth interviews in order to examine program impacts and potential moderating and mediating factors. The Institute for Education Sciences announced an additional $10 million in funding for postsecondary research, but that amount won’t make much of a difference as funding an intervention and conducting an evaluation can easily cost several million dollars.

I hope the summit helps colleges and organizations develop partnerships similar to the University Innovation Alliance, the Student Achievement Measure, and other organizations that link colleges with similar goals to each other. But it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these pledges are likely things that colleges planned to do anyway.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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