The biggest problem in American higher education

Updated Aug. 22nd at 7:08pm by Jason Pontius

Our company, White Whale, provides design, technology, and consulting services to colleges and universities. We do a lot of writing and research in higher ed, most of which winds up in strategic recommendations and branding documents that we send to our clients; we don’t do a lot of outreach to the public beyond the occasional tweet.

Recently we’ve been engaged in a consulting project on behalf of a small nonprofit foundation in NYC, looking at ways to help some of America’s smallest colleges do a better job of marketing themselves. In the midst of a two-week road trip in which we visited 8 colleges in 9 days— somewhere in the middle of New Hampshire— we learned about a particular structural problem in American higher education that seems both extremely complex and— to us, at least— eminently solvable. And we find ourselves increasingly drawn toward trying to solve it.

Here’s the problem:

The vast majority of low-income, high-achieving high school students don’t apply to any selective college.

(This formulation is from Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery’s article “The Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students”,which we’ll be talking about quite a bit in this blog.)

We work with lots of schools. Some are more selective than others, of course, but I’m sure the great majority of our clients would fall into the category of “selective” as Hoxby and Avery describe it. Most of our clients have a few things in common:

  • They have strong social missions, and are committed to supporting low-income and first-generation college students.
  • They are strenuously working to become more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse (an effort that we’ll examine more closely in blog posts to come).
  • Their campus culture is centered on the faculty-student relationship, and ……..

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