Providing low-income students better access to quality higher education isn’t just an aspirational goal or popular talking point for some higher education leaders.

For former Ohio State University President William “Brit” Kirwan, it’s what keeps him up at night.

“It is really the civil rights issue of our time,” said Kirwan, who served as Ohio State’s president from 1998 to 2002 and then as chancellor for the University System of Maryland from 2002 to 2015.

Kirwan joined current Ohio State president Michael V. Drake and Kenyon College President Sean Decatur on Wednesday at Ohio State to discuss college affordability efforts for high-achieving, low-income students.

It’s the issue at the center of the American Talent Initiative, or ATI, of which Ohio State was a founding member when it launched in 2016. Since then, the project has grown to have 100 college and university members, including Kenyon and others.

The goal shared among them: Enroll 50,000 talented, low- and moderate-income, high-achieving students at colleges and universities with strong graduation rates by 2025. Those students, though high-achieving, are much less likely to graduate with a college degree than their higher-income peers, according to ATI.

Ohio State has worked to expand aid to lower-income students in recent years, in addition to maintaining scholarship programs already in place. Last fall, the school announced it will provide financial aid to completely cover tuition and mandatory fees for all in-state students who qualify for federal Pell grants.

“It’s very, very important to make sure that we are making opportunity available across ZIP codes and income bands so the best and brightest and hardest-working people can have the best chance of being successful,” said Drake, who is on ATI's steering committee.

Reaching and serving these lower-income students requires new thinking by higher education institutions, said Kirwan, who helped launch ATI.

“It’s a hard thing to say, but it isn’t so easy,” Kirwan said. “Most of these high-performing institutions tend to serve, have served and are populated by middle-class and upper-middle-class students.”

At Kenyon College, in Knox County, that means identifying cost and time barriers that can keep lower-income students out of certain courses or college experiences, Decatur said. Colleges need to realize, for example, that a lower-income student might not take a course if it has extra supply fees, or that some students aren't free in the evenings because they’re working a part-time job, he said.

Colleges must also work toward the more difficult task of shifting the culture on campus, he said.

“Are we really building a community where everyone feels like they belong in the same way?” Decatur said. “How do you get members of a community to talk to each other across difference, including across class difference?”

In addition to funding additional scholarships for low- and moderate-income students, Ohio State also has programs and funds meant to help those students get over the finish line, Drake said. Completion grants, for example, make emergency funds available to Ohio State students in their final semesters, he said.

“There are drastically different results in students who are able to register for that last semester or those last two semesters versus those who drop out for the purpose of working or getting the money and come back,” Drake said. “They’re several times more likely to graduate if you give them this last little bridge.”

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola