By Ronald Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond
Much has been made in recent years—and in the wake of the presidential election—of the problem of economic inequality in America. Opportunity is central to the American narrative, and education is an essential component of opportunity.
To increase avenues of possibility in higher education, the University of Richmond recently joined 30 of the nation’s most respected colleges and universities as charter members of the American Talent Initiative (ATI), whose goal is to increase the recruitment and graduation success of low- and moderate-income students.
Despite a spate of arguments to the contrary, an investment in education remains the single most important investment any young person can make. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a four-year college graduate will earn $1 million more in her lifetime than a peer with just a high school diploma. This is income that can finance a home, build a business and help a community prosper. College graduates are more likely to have health and life insurance, retirement benefits and paid leave. They also fare better during recessions and are more likely to pass this higher quality of life on to new generations.
More profoundly, for children born into the bottom quintile of income distribution, a college degree nearly quadruples their ability to attain the top income quintile and increases their ability to move out of the bottom quintile by 50 percent.
Regrettably, many of the most academically qualified students from mid- and low-income families continue to find access to selective colleges and universities outside their grasp. America’s top colleges have an important role to play in expanding access and success for low- and moderate-income students. Research by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation shows that when high-achieving, lower-income students attend selective institutions, they have a greater chance of graduating. And a student graduating from a top college or university has a greater chance of earning higher lifetime wages and occupying leadership positions of various types.
Charter members of the ATI were chosen for our emerging success enhancing access and affordability initiatives in recent years and our efforts to ensure that students who enter our colleges also thrive and graduate. I say emerging success because we are only beginning to move the needle. So how do we build and sustain even higher levels of success?
At Richmond, our commitment to being need-blind in admission and meeting the full financial need of all students has helped us nearly double the number of Pell Grant-eligible students in our entering class over the past 10 years. Our first-generation students, Pell-eligible students and students of color graduate at rates comparable to the rest of their classmates.
We also have a special commitment to families in our home state: Richmond’s Promise to Virginia provides full tuition, room, and board to students from Virginia families whose annual household income is $60,000 or less.
I share these successes as examples, but not as a declaration of victory. The progress we have made at the University of Richmond, and throughout academia, shows both how far we have come and how much work we have yet to do to truly open the doors of opportunity.
Thus remains our charge in higher education and within the new ATI collaborative.
The nation’s most academically talented young people deserve a place on our campuses, regardless of their financial circumstances. Once they enroll, we must commit to their success. The progress we have made at Richmond puts us in a position to provide helpful guidance to those who seek similar progress at their own institutions. Working with our partners in ATI, we look forward to developing new and collaborative ways to increase educational opportunity in higher education and to magnifying the powerful benefits of those efforts—for our students, the nation and the world.
The University of Richmond is among the growing number of ACE member institutions that have joined the American Talent Initiative, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported collaboration between the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, Ithaka S+R, and colleges and universities dedicated to substantially expanding opportunity and access for low- and moderate-income students.