AMERICAN HIGHER education will face a severe crisis in the early years of the
rapidly approaching new century. During its first decades, I expect us to be debating
our traditional concepts of higher education opportunity and access. Opportunity
in American higher education has continually expanded throughout our history, but
-- sadly, I believe -- recent trends evidence a narrowing of that concept.
Traditional concepts of opportunity are being redefined in a piecemeal fashion.
Without early, deliberate reconsideration, these traditional concepts will be at
The expansion of access and participation in higher education has been a major
theme of American social and economic history in the post-World War II era. The nation,
the states, and our colleges and universities successfully accommodated the veterans
under the GI Bill and then the baby boomers. They responded to the Civil Rights movement,
and dramatically expanded educational opportunity for those initially called "non-traditional"
students. Student financial aid, enlargement of existing facilities, and -- in the
public sector -- the unprecedented construction of new campuses were the major policy
tools used by government during these past five decades of expansion.
Growth was based on national consensus that every American who was motivated and
could benefit from education and training beyond high school should have that opportunity
regardless of personal or family financial resources, race or ethnicity. The civic
and individual values that supported this consensus in a period of national economic
growth must be preserved in the coming century, when financial support will be problematic.
Opportunity must be preserved because education beyond high school has become
a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the employment to which most Americans
aspire -- employment that can afford them economic sufficiency, employment that in
turn correlates with civic, community and cultural participation.
Other options for upward mobility and a middle class life have been narrowed.
Domestically, technological advances have increased productivity, and fewer industrial
workers are required; and offshore competition has meant less domestic production.
If opportunity is broadly defined as the chance to fully participate in American
society, higher education has become the gateway to this participation.
Economic growth will, I trust, continue in the next century. By 2008, however,
some two million additional students will seek entry into our colleges and universities,
and projected state support will not be commensurate with that growth. Costly construction
of new facilities, the past solution to growth, is unlikely: There are political
limits to raising taxes and to shifting funds from other public services that have
legitimate demands on public funds.
Ironically, as education and training beyond high school have increased in importance,
recent federal and state policies have narrowed the opportunities for participation
-- often in the name of opportunity itself.
Evidence of diminished concern for the neediest potential students is not hard
to find. Faced with the recession of the early 1990s, states shifted responsibility
for higher education away from taxpayers toward students and their families. Public
higher education tuition increased by about a third without commensurate increases
in need-based student financial assistance.
Moreover, in many states the rate of growth of financial aid programs for academically
successful students without means testing outstripped the growth of need-based aid.
Basically, such programs afford subsidies to students who are already college bound.
The best known of these--the Georgia Hope Scholarship -- was structured to exclude
low-income students from participation, a kind of reverse means testing.
This program influenced the trend toward publicly supported grants that do not
consider financial need. In one year, 1995-96, non-need-based dollars for undergraduates
increased by almost 11 percent from the previous year, but need-based grants
decreased by two percent.
At the federal level, two developments have placed opportunity in jeopardy. First,
without major policy debate, the federal financial aid system has been transformed
over the past two decades from one characterized predominantly by need-based grants
to one in which loans predominate. Federal loans increased in constant dollars from
about $17 million in 1987 to some $42 million in 1997. During this same period, federal
support of need-based Pell grants remained relatively stable at $5 million.
The second development was middle class relief from college costs in the form
of tuition tax credits. The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 is expected to cost some
$40 billion in foregone revenues from 1998 to 2002 -- the largest infusion of federal
aid for college since the GI Bill. Two non-refundable tax credit programs, designed
to ease the burden of college costs for the middle class, are at the heart of the
federal law. While about $9 billion in foregone revenue for these tax credits was
expected to be incurred in 1998, only an estimated $650 million was authorized to
increase the Pell Grant program, which serves the lowest income students.
Historically, higher education opportunity is inextricably tied to overarching
public policy issues -- the distribution of public resources, and the priorities
and incentives, explicit and implicit, that have an impact on governmental support
of students and institutions. In the mid and late 1990s, these policies seem to reflect
the broad political trends that Nicholas Lemann referred to in a recent New York
Times Sunday Magazine article as "the new American consensus." According
to Lemann, this consensus focuses on the primacy of suburban middle class interests,
and dominates both major political parties. Lemann characterized this consensus as
one of "government of, by and for the comfortable."
Lemann's analysis suggests that neither the problems nor the solutions to the
issues of opportunity are likely to be found by examining higher education in a vacuum.
I do not claim to predict how the societal, political, economic and educational scenarios
will play out into the first decade of the new century. It is possible, however,
to identify several elements that may help us reframe, revitalize the concept of
higher education opportunity, and preserve the core values that underlay it.
- First, money matters, and most Americans know that it matters. Family income
is highly correlated with enrollment in higher education and completion of degrees.
Recent trends show that governmental policy makers believe that public subsidies
are an effective way to encourage college attendance for families with middle incomes
and above. Cannot at least as powerful a political and substantive case be made for
the potential impact of subsidies for the less affluent?
- Second, lowering financial barriers to college alone will not suffice. The financial
gap is all too often a preparation gap as well. Those from low-income backgrounds
are less likely to enroll, and, if they do, are disproportionately represented among
those requiring remedial assistance. The reframing of opportunity must address this
- Third, the concept of opportunity has often been oversimplified to mean only
access or the opportunity to enroll. But opportunity encompasses more than this;
once enrolled in college, students must have the opportunity to achieve their educational
goals. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than half
of the students who entered college in 1989 aspiring to four-year degrees actually
received them within five years. Without improvement of student learning and attainment
within higher education, the reframing of opportunity and access to it will be a
- Fourth, reframing opportunity must recognize a role for higher education in meeting
the growing need for education and skills of the adult population. Economic volatility,
immigration and the demands of continuing technological advance bring many persons
of all ages to higher education. Our rapidly changing, information-based economy
will continue for the foreseeable future to create a large gap between the knowledge
and skills of the workforce and the demands of the modern marketplace.
- Fifth, escalating costs of higher education inevitably drive up prices; steep
and precipitous increases in the price of college create a "sticker shock."
Shocked reaction to high tuition dampens the college aspirations of many low income
and first generation students. Constraining the growth of per-student college costs
is, therefore, a key element of preserving and enhancing accessibility.
- Sixth, the states have leverage to take the lead on the opportunity agenda. More
so than individual higher education institutions or the federal government, states
have the capacity to develop cohesive strategies for opportunity that mobilize the
public schools, public and private colleges and universities, and the growing number
of corporate and other providers of education beyond high school. States can target
their own subsidies in ways that leverage the opportunity agenda.
These six concepts are not a comprehensive strategy, but rather are elements of
a new framework for opportunity and access. Each addresses a piece of the opportunity
puzzle. Federal and state higher education policies of the 1990s and the "new
consensus" that Lemann has so aptly described would, more by drift than by design,
diminish higher education's role as enabler of opportunity.
There is still room for optimism, however. The political and educational conditions
for the reframing of opportunity and access are also present -- a recommitment to
higher education's critical responsibility for opportunity is possible. The conditions
for this recommitment are found in the values of the general public, in the traditions
and capacities of American colleges and universities that were demonstrated so well
over the half century since World War II, and in a global economy that is relentlessly
demanding higher levels of education and training.
Higher education cannot unilaterally close the opportunity gap, and close collaboration
with the public schools will be required. Most critically, political leadership will
be essential. Without such leadership, America's colleges and universities may well
be part of the problem -- components of a social infrastructure that perpetuates
and may widen the opportunity gap. With such leadership, they can play an active
and invaluable role in the reframing and renewal of opportunity in the next century.
--Patrick M. Callan