10:41 AM

​Past and current presidents discuss American Talent Initiative at Ohio State

William “Brit” Kirwan, former president of The Ohio State University, considers the challenge facing low- and moderate-income students in the nation’s colleges and universities to be the civil rights issue of our time.

“Over time, achieving the American Dream now has an added condition. You have to have a college degree,” Kirwan said.

Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, joined President Michael V. Drake and Kenyon College President Sean M. Decatur today at the Ohio Union to discuss the American Talent Initiative. The event was hosted by the university’s Center for Ethics and Human Values.

Ohio State is a founding member of the American Talent Initiative, a first-of-its-kind partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ithaka S+R and the Aspen Institute to help colleges work together to expand access and opportunity for highly talented, lower-income students. More than 100 colleges and universities have joined ATI since it was founded in 2016.

Drake said research helped identify the achievement gap ATI is seeking to address.

“A lot of research, but particularly some research around 2010 and 2012, found there were estimates of approximately 50,000 lower- and moderate-income students in the country who had the grades and test scores of students who were admitted to, and successful at, the most competitive universities in the country,” Drake said. “But for whatever reason [they] were not in college at all or were at colleges that gave them a lower chance of being successful.”

Decatur said Kenyon joined ATI in 2017. As a private, liberal arts college, his organization’s profile is different from Ohio State’s – but he said identifying and helping low- and moderate-income students succeed at Kenyon is just as important.

“When we think about creating an opportunity for high-performing students from low-income families, it’s important to not just think about creating opportunities to go to college, but to go to a college that is going to be the most challenging and most able to offer success,” he said.

All three agreed that achieving the ATI goal of enrolling 50,000 of the targeted population of students by 2025 will require resources, ongoing research and recruitment.

“When you think about it, it’s not just, OK, we want to serve more low-income students. You have to think about the fact that, first of all, so often these students are attending high schools where institutions don’t normally go recruit students,” Kirwan said. “So there’s a whole recruiting aspect to this.”

Financial aid plays a critical role in helping students attend college when they ordinarily might not. Drake and Decatur pointed to programs at their institutions to help solve for that issue.

Decatur said that as part of a current fundraising campaign, a group of donors has set out to build a $20 million endowment to help cover the cost of college for students recruited under ATI.

Under Drake’s leadership, Ohio State has committed $100 million in need-based aid for students and families since 2015. Last year the university also announced financial aid will cover the full cost of tuition for all students from Ohio who qualify for Pell Grants.

“We work hard to make it known, if you’re an Ohio student, that tuition isn’t a barrier for you particularly if you’re from the lower half of the income distribution,” Drake said. “Your tuition will be effectively zero.”

Kirwan said all of these efforts are significant because the country is facing a growing education gap. Not enough students are graduating from college to help fill the jobs that are being created that require a degree. ATI, he said, can be a part of the solution to close that gap.

Drake said the research and ideas created through ATI will ultimately help improve higher education as a whole.

“And the idea is that whether it’s interest in the collective good, or competitiveness, these are good ideas that people will continue to adopt across the sector. And that will raise the success and completion rates in all of our colleges and universities, and by that have a much larger effect.”