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National CrossTalk
Spring 1999 National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

Editorial  
1 of 1 Stories  

Is the Door Closing?
The narrowing of higher education opportunity

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 risk.

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 preparation gap.

  • 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 hollow gesture.

  • 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

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