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OPINION: Helping make sure every income level has a shot at higher ed

Talent does not know zip code or race, birthright or income level. Innate talent is a precious gift.

If we are to advance our society and improve our standing in the world, American higher education must scour the country for talented young people no matter their socioeconomic background, enroll them, and support their success.

Recently, I attended a meeting of the American Talent Initiative (americantalentinitiative.org), where presidents from universities and colleges with the strongest graduation rates in the country reaffirmed their commitment to recruit, admit, and support highly qualified low-income students.

This is, admittedly, a selfish pursuit as well as a national imperative. Bright, capable students from low- and moderate-income families add to the multi-dimensional diversity of campus life and make universities stronger and more innovative. They add richness to classroom discussions and contribute their unique voices to the learning environment across campus. As graduates, these young people will help decrease income inequality and increase economic and social mobility in our society, all hallmarks of a healthy, vibrant country.

As we consider the University of Dayton’s mission as a Catholic, Marianist university focused on the common good and reflect on our history of educating German immigrants from Ohio farming communities and students from blue-collar families, we know the value of socioeconomic diversity. We also know we need to lower the barriers that prevent students from low- and middle-income bands from attending and graduating from college, whether those students come from rural Ohio, suburban Chicago, urban Los Angeles, D.C., or New York.

We were asked to join the American Talent Initiative (and were thrilled to say “yes!”) in part because we are a high-achieving university (with graduation rates well in excess of the 70 percent minimum), in part because we were willing to make a commitment and set our own goals to increase enrollment and graduation of low- and moderate-income Americans, and in part because we are seen as a university that has unique contributions to make to the collection of best practices in this important domain.

We are among a diverse set of 96 private and public institutions committed to a sustained collective effort to dramatically increase educational opportunity for these talented youth. We are enhancing our own efforts to recruit and support lower-income students, while learning from each other and contributing to research that will help other colleges and universities expand opportunity.

The coalition, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and coordinated by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R, has a shared goal of enrolling an additional 50,000 qualified low- and moderate-income students in the top 270 U.S. colleges and universities by 2025. I think it’s doable. I also think it is a necessity.

Over the last year, we have worked with ATI staff to set our goals as part of the collective and to share some of our own innovative practices, including the Flyer Promise program, the UD Sinclair Academy, and the no-fee, fixed-net-tuition program. These programs are not only removing barriers for students in our Dayton community, they are at the heart of the ATI mission. I was happy to share our vision at the Bloomberg offices for the annual meetings of presidents — from Princeton and Harvard to Davidson and Franklin & Marshall to Michigan and Ohio State.

The varying perspectives — from big and small (50,000 to 1,000), public and private, hyper-elite and competitive — enriched our conversations. We listened to each other and openly shared our observations, hopes, and concerns in an honest, transparent forum.

To borrow from “Hamilton,” I felt like I was in the “room where it happens.” The degree of commitment of these higher-ed leaders is inspiring, the set of practices in place and under development across the country is promising, and the combined power of these universities and colleges is overwhelming.

The effort to ensure that, as a society, we educate lower- and moderate-income Americans is essential to our freedoms and our future. We must succeed as a collective, and UD must succeed individually in what is an important race for talent.

Eric F. Spina is president of the University of Dayton.

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