Leadership Toward Educational Equity and Access to Higher Education (a 3-part series)

Part Three. Putting it All Together: Aligning Public, Private and Philanthropic Stakeholders to Transform America’s College Access Inequities

The time has come for leaders to increase equitable access to higher education, particularly for disadvantaged students in America. This third and final article in the series will argue the need for shared accountability. It will also explore the roles of much-needed stakeholders at this historical juncture for the US public education system.As everyone knows, schools exist to prepare students for life. This means that decision makers throughout the K-12 continuum share an important responsibility. They must ensure all students can confidently aspire to higher education. Unfortunately, no one manages “the sheer number of uncoordinated, and sometimes contradictory, federal and state policies and initiatives, and a lack of policy fluency experienced by most educators,” according to scholars Capper and Young (Capper p. 161).Research cites that there is not so much a lack of support, but rather a lack of cohesion, among those trying to help solve for access in America. Some say that part of the problem lies with the wide array of equity initiatives and policies thrown at school administrators. From the local, state, and federal levels—and from academics committed to social justice—this lack of coordination harms student outcomes.By directing policy and practice, leaders overseeing efforts at the national level can create change. They can help busy superintendents, principals, counselors and educators implement innovative practices. Sporadic, unaligned directives could become organized into locally adapted, central systems of student support. Of course, technology will likely drive this innovation, since old paradigms have proven unsustainable. The current status quo has resulted in significant repercussions, such as increasing offshore jobs, a drug crisis sparked by hopelessness, and overcrowded prisons. A coalesced approach provides the opportunity to effectively and positively impact lives.

Without a doubt, leadership must assure unified, equitable access to solve for the information gap impeding college access in America.

District Disruption

30,000 LAUSD public school teachers recently went on strike. Given these and similar tensions currently erupting across the country, one timely matter to consider is where the public sector is getting it wrong. In fact, tensions within districts have become increasingly commonplace in recent years (Serino).

One possible explanation is a 1992 law, wherein the centrally managed school district and charter schools function independently from a central school board. In Los Angeles Unified, for example, 15 years of declining student populations have proportionately mirrored the growth of charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately managed. Most are non-union. A viable industry, charters now educate more than 112,000 Los Angeles students, taking state dollars from the district. The loss of these state dollars put public schools in survival mode, sending educators onto the strike lines to secure a 6% salary increase along with other concessions. In the case of LAUSD, some reports show as much as $600 million going to charter schools in a single year (Plachta).

Adding to the complexity of the ecosystem, America now has district-affiliated as well as independent charters. A district-affiliated charter is a hybrid. The school secures outside sources of revenue to operate, but in some cases still receives funding from the district. Some claim charters are the death knell of public education while others see them as a great hope. Whether they are loved or hated, one thing is for certain: districts will never be the same now that charters are so widespread. Technology may prove a key strategy as public education moves forward within the resulting budgetary constraints.

Of interest, some thought leaders have known for years that the root of the problem rests squarely in the way America structures districts. For example, John Katzman, founder of The Princeton Review, 2U, and the Noodle Companies recently stated, “There’s a dynamic tension that keeps everything in K-12 pretty much in place. If we really want change, we need to completely rethink districts. Schools are not the problem and teachers are not the problem. Districts show all the dysfunctions you would expect when you give a geographic monopoly over a large area. Rethinking governance in light of the lessons of charters would add flexibility and effectiveness” (Katzman).

As decision-makers across the public sector have been stymied by district structure, privately held corporations have entered to fill voids. Yet, with so many students living within financial constraints, the lack of funds for these private services has led to a stranglehold on access. It’s clear America requires transformative leadership to innovate during a time of discord among governmental, private, and nonprofit stakeholders. How can leaders in digital technologies help establish a better path for future generations of students, and what are the economic benefits of this?

Whose Debt Is It Anyway?

As districts struggle to navigate the financial trials that abound, student debt has reached $1.5 trillion and grows each day. Challenges related to both college access and financial aid impact this alarming number. Added to this is America’s muddy interpretation of when a teen becomes an adult.

As an example, the voting age is 18, but youth that age cannot rent a car or hotel room. Additionally, the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is determined by the federal government after parents and students together fill out the FAFSA. Since the parents’ tax records are used as the reference, the federal government effectively says those applying to college are not independent adults. Yet, most students have reached 18 years of age by the time they begin financing their first year of college, and the debt they carry is largely their own to bear.

It seems the ages at which various sectors determine someone has come of age can be quite arbitrary. Still, every year millions of college bound students shackle themselves to student debt that cannot be expunged even in bankruptcy. To make matters worse, many of those have no idea how the financial aid labyrinth really works.

Source: FSA, Retrieved from

Colleges are not required to treat incoming freshman as adults, and they often don’t, except when it comes to getting paid. Furthermore, work-study and other repayment methods often prove insufficient for many students. This need gap frightens away many would-be applicants entirely, which is a loss in terms of human capital that’s impossible to even calculate.

Currently, educators must apply much time and effort into understanding often-disjointed equity policies and initiatives. Their efforts may be better directed by transformative leadership which can create a single, coherent, and publicized series of directives from the US Department of Education. These directives would support state boards of education in solving this confusion. As Capper and Young state, “Regardless of the policy fluency or efforts of social justice leaders, the plethora of equity policies and practices where inclusion/ integration, student learning and achievement, and the range of student identities are not central, work against educational leadership for social justice” (Capper, p. 162).

In truth, policymakers from federal to local levels hold significant responsibility for the state of affairs. They will need to play a significant role in solving the problem of inequitable college access in America. Institutional values that continue to favor privileged students beg for innovation. It’s time to focus upon closing the opportunity gap by closing the affordability gap.

In order to bring together disparate stakeholders within corporate, nonprofit, and the federal/state/local government, leaders must help to abolish micro-agendas. Turf wars and territoriality aside, prioritization must arise, and it must be committed to what is fair and right for students. In order for higher education to fulfill its promise as a tool of social mobility, new gatekeepers at the K-12 level must ensure public school students have a fair shot (Accelerating).

Democratization of Access: States, and Philanthropies as Stakeholders Alongside Them

How can access be democratized to allow philanthropies as stakeholders alongside states? Privatization is often seen as the primary culprit when it comes to compromised student outcomes. How can this be offset in the interest of the highest good for more students?

The problem of pricey college tuition (and frequently accompanying student debt) begs an obvious question. Some point to existing grants, asserting that supports are already in place. However, even when significant monies are placed to help students achieve college access goals, they are almost always for a limited time. For instance, programs like Gear Up in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles, can be placed, but in a finite number of years (six, to be exact) may end (Gaining).

Sustainable support will require a holistic approach, corralling the current disparate tactics into a more streamlined way of ensuring students’ needs are met. Right now, the US Department of Education has an opportunity to facilitate fair access for all students. By allocating dedicated grants targeted at digital solutions for public schools, it can fund the necessary mentorship to achieve academic success post-graduation. One such initiative the department implemented last year was its promising FAFSA mobile app, which simplified the financial aid process for families as the “first of many steps” by FSA COO Dr. A. Wayne Johnson. “The FSA Next Gen environment is the next major milestone in the administration of federal financial aid and how students empower their educational dreams,” Johnson said in a press release. “FSA is reimagining how it serves its customers throughout the student aid life cycle to ensure student borrowers are engaged throughout the process and have the information they need to make informed decisions” (Fredman).

In additional to encouraging federal initiatives, lawmakers spearheading visionary legislation need to incentivize state governments to invest in funding higher education at state universities. As the American Council on Education’s Thomas Mortenson asserts, “Despite steadily growing student demand for higher education since the mid-1970s, state fiscal investment in higher education has been in retreat in the states since about 1980. In fact, it is headed for zero.”

He goes on to state, “Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others. Public higher education is gradually being privatized” (Mortenson). Without state changes as well as federal and district level shifts, the resulting pathways for students hoping to access higher education will remain fractured and uneven.

As it pertains to philanthropic participation in this ecosystem of diverse stakeholders, the recent debacle of the Common Core curriculum at the federal level offered a cautionary tale for misplaced involvement. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation attempted to use private donations to shift how the US government structured its educational activities and usage of taxpayer dollars. Despite heroically helping pioneer a philanthropy model to solve college access in America, their initiative backfired.

Perceptions among educators across popular media showed that the measures deployed by the federal government in the Common Core initiative were seen as coercive. Because it was linked to school and teacher ratings and punished “low performers,” it sparked controversy almost from inception. Rather than being fiscally persuaded into compliance with a federal mandate, states opted out of millions of federal dollars.

The Gates Foundation spent more than $400 million and influenced $4 trillion in US taxpayer funds towards this goal. Eight years later, Bill Gates admitted failure on that project, stating in his blog, “Based on everything we have learned in the past 17 years, we are evolving our education strategy…If there is one thing I have learned, it is that no matter how enthusiastic we might be about one approach or another, the decision to go from pilot to wide-scale usage is ultimately and always something that has to be decided by you and others in the field” (Pullman).

Reports show the Gates Foundation will spend around $1.7 billion on other initiatives. Approximately 60 percent will support the development of new curricula and networks of schools that work together to identify local problems and solutions. Specifically, Gates Foundation allocates funds for what it calls NSIs (Networks for School Improvement). For this, it uses an RFP (Request for Proposals) process and typically funds human-capital-driven approaches.

Philanthropies have an important role to play in the revolution of American access. How they focus their funds as well as which leaders they trust to lead the vision need to be carefully measured. Some ask whether Gates Foundation’s commitment to this old-school, boots-on-the-ground paradigm may be causing the organization to miss the larger opportunity for impact at scale by leveraging digital tools and methodologies that can potentially support millions of students.

In contrast to a federally mandated K-12 curriculum, which proved untenable, the US government may want to consider other options. One option could be funding digital college pathway programs for public high school students. Ideally these programs would be offered “between the bells” as part of the school day or during the summer. Programs like this could radically redistribute access to both information and opportunity in the United States.

To this end, it will be imperative to disrupt the current ways that students access critical information. As recently stated by the Department of Educational Technology, a subset of the US Department of Education, “…technology can enable system-wide and broader ecosystem applications of collaborative solutions to the core challenges of access, affordability, and completion” (Reimagining).

Currently, small and large businesses sell private tutoring and mentorship services, earning billions of dollars in revenue from middle- and upper-class families. This is not conducive to access for all. Only a federally funded program will reach from the hollers of Appalachia to the inner cities of Detroit and Los Angeles to help every student find the confidence and competence to aspire.

In the end, the circular challenge underscored in this article is this: the federal government cannot change this alone. Philanthropies cannot change this alone, and neither can private sector for-profits, entrepreneurs, or nonprofits. States have a role to play. Boards of Education have a role to play. Principals. Teachers. Counselors. And yes, even the students themselves (Radford).

Holding Out for a Hero

With innovators creating solutions to increase college access, the digital revolution presents a potentially viable way forward. These technologies may be here to stay as a supplement to the human-capital-only solutions of the past. In this age of disruption, with Airbnb upsetting the hotel industry and Uber changing the transportation trade, educational access is perhaps inevitable as the next major societal sector to be re-envisioned.

Within this ecosystem, the right transformative leadership is required; America is holding out for a hero. This hero must direct traffic at the intersection of government, private sector and non-profit organizations. It will be necessary to navigate the conflict that will come from current stakeholders along with negotiating under scrutiny among the many who currently profit and will resist change.

Transformative leadership can pave the way toward increased access for one and all, pushing the American dream toward a new and brighter future. In finally coordinating public, private and philanthropic stakeholders’ duty to those without advantages, provision can be assured toward the greatest good for society as a whole.


Accelerating College and Career Readiness (2018, July 10). GATE White Paper. Retrieved from

Capper, C.A., & Young, M.D. (2014). Ironies and limitations of educational leadership for social justice. Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing.

Ciulla, Joanne B. 2003. The Ethics of Leadership. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Fredman, Joelle. 30 November 2017. FSA COO Unveils FAFSA Mobile App. Retrieved from

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. GEAR UP. Retrieved from:

Katzman, John. Interview with Pamela M. Donnelly. 21 December 2018.

Mortenson, Thomas G. Winter 2012. Budgets and Appropriations. State Funding: A Race to the Bottom.  Retrieved from:

NACAC (2018). “State-By-State Student-Counselor Ratio Report” National Association of College Admissions Counselors. Retrieved from–publications/Research/state-by-state-student-tocounselor-ratio-report2/.

Plachta, Ariella. 26 January 2019. What does fallout from LA teachers strike mean for the future of charter schools? Retrieved from:

Pullman, Joy. 25 October 2017. Bill Gates Tacitly Admits His Common Core Experiment Was A Failure. Retrieved from:

Radford, Alexandria Walton, Nicole Ifill and Terry Lew. A National Look at the High School Counseling Office: What Is It Doing and What Role Can It Play in Facilitating Students’ Paths to College? Retrieved from

Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education. January 2017. US Department of Education Office of Education Technology. Retrieved from:

Serino, Louis. 21 November 2017. Examining the persistent tensions in US public schools.

Positionality Acknowledgement: the author is founder and CEO of GATE College System.

Previous two articles in this series:

Part 2:

Part 1: