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

Part One: The Dream

Most Americans believe the American dream—that is, the ideal that every U.S. citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative—is within reach, according to the Pew Research Center. Samantha Smith there reports that only 17% say the American dream is “out of reach” for their family. While not all Americans believe that higher education is critical to upward mobility, according to NBC News, 49% of Americans agree with the statement that “a four-year degree is worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more money over their lifetimes.” Nevertheless, in recent years increasing numbers of students, in particular those who are first generation, are debating whether they can afford to aspire.

Assessing this fractured ecosystem, with rhetoric of dreams and access but insufficient means to achieve it, the research in this three-part series offers evidence that a new paradigm of collaborative leadership is needed. In the past and even now, transformational leaders have been rising to challenges, offering an “attractive, realistic and believable future” with a vision that would, according to renowned leadership author Dr. Peter Northouse, “grow out of the needs of the entire organization…claimed by those within it…the emergence of the vision originat[ing] from both the leaders and the followers.”

In contrast to transformational leadership, the new paradigm proposed in this series of articles is transformative leadership. Note: these are similar words, but different concepts. As described by education expert Carolyn Shields, this style “begins with questions of justice and democracy, critiques inequitable practices, and addresses both individual and public good.” Having read her work, as well as those cited at the end of this article, I’m coming to the firm conclusion that America needs now to raise up leaders working transformatively. These can then function as social architects, re-envisioning the current broken system that hinders educational access into one that creatively deploys new solutions while empowering hearts, minds and action.

Transformative leadership encompasses an important, emerging paradigm, but it is challenging for bureaucrats to embrace since it requires a willingness to start from scratch with new ideas. Moving from the familiar to nontraditional methods and ways of thinking requires leaders to move beyond the familiar—especially in public education, an area that has historically been resistant to change. It can take a long time to get things done, and teacher and administrative turnover rates don’t help. A quarter of the country’s principals quit their schools each year, according to an Ed Week report, and nearly 50 percent leave in their third year. This “churn” is a major problem in U.S. public high schools, and impedes creative deployment of innovative solutions. The labyrinth of district politics constitutes another impediment to positive change. It’s been said that anything that a superintendent likes, the teachers’ union will likely oppose; anything the teachers like, the districts will oppose; the Board of Education or school administrators all want their say. Meanwhile, millions of first generation students wait for a cavalry to come over the hill that’s long overdue. The dynamic tension is unfortunately keeping everything pretty much in place.


Superintendents and high school principals face a mandate to find ways for students to access credible information. Many rely upon free solutions like Khan Academy. With student data the primary price for admission, the question remains whether this truly fulfills the need with an equitable tactic. Education blogger Seyi Fabode laments, “The rich will pay private tutors for the education of their kids, while we the plebs will flock to Khan Academy and every other variation of personalized learning delivered through touchscreens.” Disadvantaged students either not using Khan and other open-source solutions, or using them infrequently or incorrectly, is of major concern to educators on the front lines. Students must be both motivated and trained—and sadly, the self-selected who already have advantages are the ones who generally self-advocate enough to benefit.

Scalable motivation is needed, but how can this be accomplished? Can popular college readiness solutions like Naviance help? This solution, designed to be counselor-facing not student-centered, is cost-prohibitive for many districts. Counselor reviewers who use it have cited its “clumsy interface; multiple steps to complete actions; [and being] non-intuitive”; stating that “Everything about it, from the functionality to the interface, feels like it’s stuck in the past and not moving forward” (Capterra). Student reviews include comments like “My school uses Naviance, but it’s never worked for me”; and “I use Naviance. it’s alright but disheartening” (College Talk Confidential). The fact of the matter is, according to the Wall Street Journal, Naviance is “available only to students whose schools subscribe, including about 40% of U.S. public high-school students” (Shellenbarger). At approximately $10-$13 per student annually for necessary services, is Naviance a solution poised to help or even reach America’s first generation students? (Footnote 1)

Political and bureaucratic impediments to increasing equitable access notwithstanding, the heart of transformative leadership requires “promise, liberation, hope, empowerment, activism, risk, social justice, courage, [and] revolution” (Shields). Case in point: many educators offer their time and talents within systems that could easily frustrate them, yet they power-through fueled by their commitment to the students they seek to serve. They know things are not equitable, largely due to a cultural capital and knowledge gap. They know the opportunity gap is real, and that’s where innovative programs must be championed to offer critical opportunities leading to a societal shift. The desire to see true innovation in the service of marginalized teens is re-stated again and again among educational leaders: in research, in academic journals, and in mass media. It is as if everyone sees the problem and the stakes, but the national leadership to shift the paradigm has not been secured quite yet. The economic impact of that is significant.

“The value of an education can’t be quantified. Perhaps it’s priceless. But the cost of going to school certainly can be calculated, and the figures are staggering,” asserted journalist Ephrat Livni (2018). He went on to report that those who complete a bachelor’s degree owe, on average nationally, $30,500, according to data from the Department of Education. As five million jobs requiring college degrees have moved offshore since 2000, and as the drug crisis swells and related societal ills escalate, America is hitting a critical time in its history (Healy, 2018). Addressing educational disparity may be necessary in order to champion anything resembling a meritocracy.

The disproportionate mentorship needs of 15.8 million students annually as compared to the limited pool of far too few qualified mentors means the current paradigm is part of the problem. Consider that elite magazines tout the ease of hiring private support at up to $100,000 per student to get into the Ivy League and other selective schools. This level of hand-holding support can never reach the vast majority of American students, and the opportunity gap grows wider as a result. As Town and Country’s Yishai Schwartz reports in the magazine’s online site, “Independent counselors are used by 25 percent of students at private American colleges. In this country the tutoring, counseling, and test prep market is a $12 billion industry.”

How can a shared vision be inspired by transformational leadership to transcend the status quo and build a collective identity and community spirit rallied around a common objective? Although in-person mentorship can provide ideal guidance, it is not attainable for far too many students. The next two parts of this series will explore the needed role of access to information via transformative, visionary leadership as a critical component of increasing pathways to college for first generation students, thereby creating a more equitable society in the U.S. today.

(Footnote 1) Erratum: Original wording of this section contained an error, representing that the basic version of Naviance averages $20/student. The researcher regrets the misinformation received. The $10-$13 figure in this corrected representation represents confirmed costs for the core platform plus certain optional services like test prep. Pricing is variable based on the number of students enrolled in a school and the choice of options selected.


Capterra. (2018). About Naviance by Hobsons. Retrieved on December 9, 2018 from

College Talk Confidential (2018). Cappex vs. Naviance. Retrieved on December 9, 2018 from

Dann, Carrie. NBC News.

Healy, Michelle (2018, February 1). Killer epidemic: Schools deal with repercussions of the nation’s opioid crisis. National School Boards Association. Retrieved from

Livni, E. (2018, August 24). A dream defaulted: $1.5 trillion of student loan debt has transformed the American dream.

Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA:SAGE Publishing.

Schwartz, Y. (2017, June 28). For parents willing to pay thousands, college counselors promise to make Ivy League dreams a reality. Town and Country Magazine. Retrieved November 17, 2018 from

Shellenbarger, S. (2017, September 19). College-Search Quandry? There’s an App for That. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on December 9, 2018 from that1505832484

Shields, C. (2011). Transformative leadership: An introduction. Counterpoints, 409, 1-17. Retrieved from

Shields, C.M. (2010). Transformative leadership: Working for equity in diverse contexts. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(4), 558-589.

Smith, S. (2017). Most think the ‘American dream’ is within reach for them. Retrieved from

Superville, D. R. (2014, November 5). Principal turnover takes costly toll on students and districts, report says. Ed Week. Retrieved on December 9, 2018 from ipal.html

Coming Soon—Part Two: Counselor Realities