University President Michael Drake speaks at Wednesday’s panel with Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Maryland and former University President William Kirwan. Credit: Michael Lee

University President Michael Drake echoed his support for increasing the enrollment of low-income students Wednesday in a panel discussion with higher education leaders.

Drake took part in a panel discussion on the American Talent Initiative, a program that works to expand access and opportunities to low- and moderate-income students, Wednesday morning.

Drake was joined by Kenyon College President Sean Decatur and Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Maryland and former University President William Kirwan to discuss the initiative and how it gets and keeps talented students in college.

“Achieving the American dream now has an added condition: you got to have a college degree,” Kirwan said. “Only 10 percent of young people in the lowest quartile of income earn a college degree.”

ATI consists of a wide-range of colleges and universities from institutions the size of Ohio State to those the size of Kenyon, which has a total enrollment of roughly 1,700 students.

Drake and the panelists agreed that every talented student has the right to a college education, regardless of their income level.

“It is important to think about not just creating opportunity to go to college, but to go to college in a place that is going to be the most challenging and most able to move on to success,” Decatur said.

For Ohio State’s part, Drake mentioned the many programs the university has pushed to help students achieve their goals, from the Young Scholars program that goes into poor performing high schools to recruit students in an effort to get them to attend the university, to the Land Grant Scholarship that provides a full ride to one student from each county in Ohio.

Drake said in the last four years the amount of financial aid Ohio State has provided has risen by $40 million. It took a notable leap forward when the university announced it would cover tuition for Pell grant students.

“It’s among the most rewarding things that we do, among the most important things that we can do,” Drake said. “It’s difficult enough to qualify, to have the motivation and drive to come to a competitive university like this. We don’t want the fact that your family happens to be in the lower half of the income distribution to be an undue burden.”

The discussion focused on more than just getting students to college though with retention and success also covered.

Decatur said one hurdle in higher education is creating a welcoming and helpful culture for all students, not just those from families with higher income or generations of college graduates.

“Often students with upper middle class backgrounds come into campus knowing the first thing you need to do is figure out how to line up an internship, or what the value is of doing a research experience or why a study away experience can be transformational,” he said. “Sometimes there are cost barriers to those experiences that upper middle class students assume they’ll be able to manage, but feel overwhelming to low-income students.”

Kirwin added to the sentiment that it also is important not to assume that once someone has reached college they’ll be able to make it through financially, pointing to the loss of students with good GPAs due to unmet financial needs.

“It’s one thing to get the students into the institution, but then monitoring their financial circumstances while they’re at the institution is so important,” Kirwin said.

Drake said it is important to ensure students are being helped down the right path to success and graduation in order to make sure students are getting through college with as little debt as possible and that as many people are getting to attend as possible, that way the distribution of aid can be as efficient as possible.

“As we have fewer fifth- and sixth-year students we can have more first-, second-, third- and fourth-year students, he said. “So our population doesn’t change in size; people are just moving through it at a little bit faster rate.”

Drake said Ohio State will continue to push forward to provide more aid to students who need it.

“We want to do everything we can to decrease debt amongst our students,” he said. “Every year we want to push that debt dowen a little bit more.”