For a state with a population less than many mid-sized metropolitan areas — think Kansas City or Indianapolis — but spread out over more than 77,000 square miles, Nebraska has an extraordinary postsecondary education sector. It includes a world-class medical center, a Big 10 research university, a thriving metropolitan university; state college and university campuses that support vibrant communities outside metro areas; and community colleges that address training needs of adults and businesses and give students affordable paths to technical and transfer degrees. Nebraska’s independent institutions are also jewels, educating students and enriching their communities.
But while Nebraskans should be justly proud of the higher education system they have built, its success is incomplete. In spite of the range and quality of its institutions, Nebraska comes up short on equitable educational outcomes. How short? U.S. Census data show that 55% of white, non-Hispanic Nebraskans between ages 25 and 34 have at least an associate’s degree compared to 32% of Black Nebraskans and 18% of Latinx Nebraskans. At the bachelor’s degree and higher level for the same young adults, the percentages are 41% for white, non-Hispanic Nebraskans, 21% for Black Nebraskans, and 13% for Latinx Nebraskans. The attainment gaps persist across the working adult population.
Attainment gaps matter. The unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and employment of people of color and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans reflect a host of inequities in the United States, and Nebraska is no exception. Lower educational attainment is a primary contributing factor to inequality, as educational attainment is highly correlated with better employment, higher income, better health, and greater home ownership and family wealth.
Precursors to the attainment gap are identified in the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education’s annual Progress Report. In stark and direct terms, compared to their white, non-Hispanic classmates, students of color — the growing proportion of children in Nebraska — graduate from high school at lower rates, are less well prepared for college success as measured by courses taking and ACT scores, are more likely to be from low-income households, enroll in college at lower rates, and are significantly less likely to graduate from college.
Our purpose is not to deride Nebraska’s schools, colleges and universities. While imperfect, they are keenly aware of systemic social inequities and work hard to overcome them. Rather, we wish to call attention to Nebraska’s attainment gap and put forward a handful of the ways the state can address it. They are particularly important now as families contend with unemployment, illness, food insecurity, childcare issues, and the challenges of re-opening schools and colleges.
First, give students a head start on college by increasing the number who take college courses while in high school and ensuring that access to courses is equitable across the state. Students must not be denied the opportunity to participate fully due to family income or location. Ideally, dual enrollment courses in Nebraska would be free to students as they are in Iowa and Colorado. Barring that, the state must adequately fund the Access College Early Scholarship, which pays tuition for a limited number of low-income high school students enrolled in college courses.
Second, increase high school counseling resources to improve students’ awareness of postsecondary opportunities, in-demand careers and financial aid processes. Nebraska must increase the proportion of seniors who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is only 40% at some high schools enrolling many low-income students. Completing the FAFSA may not be pleasant, but it is the foundational requirement to access federal, state and institutional financial aid. A number of states and cities have made FAFSA completion mandatory for most high school seniors and experienced large increases in FAFSA completions. If that is a step too far for Nebraska, it is still sensible to explore ways to reach 70% FAFSA completion without overwhelming busy guidance counselors.
Third, increase funding for the Nebraska Opportunity Grant (NOG) program. The NOG serves low-income Nebraska undergraduates attending public or private institutions and can be used for tuition, fees and other educational expenses. The grants can be used by adult learners as well as recent high school graduates, and they are not awarded based on standardized test scores, which are highly correlated with greater family income and parental education. Only about one-third of the 35,000 eligible students receive NOG, and the average award is only $1,410.
Finally, Nebraska should set an educational attainment goal reflective of the aspirations of our students, the needs of our economy, and the moral imperative to close the attainment gap for Nebraskans of color. No more shrugging off the gap as a fact of life that can’t be changed. It is time for Nebraska to set a goal, a timetable, a strategy, an accountability plan, and get to work.