Public Colleges as "Engines of Inequality"
The New York Times
November 23, 2006
Democrats who ran for Congress this fall made the cost of college a big campaign issue. Now that they’ve won control of the House and Senate, they can prepare to act swiftly on at least some of the factors that have priced millions of poor and working-class Americans right out of higher education. The obvious first step would be to boost the value of the federal Pell Grant program — a critical tool in keeping college affordable that the federal government has shamefully ceased to fund at a level that meets the national need.
But larger Pell Grants can’t solve this crisis alone. Policy changes will also be required in the states, where public universities have been choking off college access and upward mobility for the poor by shifting away from the traditional need-based aid formula to a so-called merit formula that heavily favors affluent students. The resulting drop in the fortunes of even high-performing low-income students — many of whom no longer attend college at all — is documented in an eye-opening report released recently by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation devoted to education reform.
The public universities were founded on the premise that they would provide broad access in exchange for taxpayer subsidies. That compact has been pretty much discarded in the state flagship campuses, which have increasingly come to view themselves as semiprivate colleges that define themselves not by inclusion, but by how many applicants they turn away, and how many of their students perform at the highest levels on the SAT, an index that clearly favors affluent teenagers who attend the best schools and have access to tutors.
The flagship schools compete for high-income, high-achieving students who would otherwise attend college elsewhere, while overlooking low-income students who are perfectly able to succeed at college but whose options are far more narrow.
In recent years, aid to students whose families earn over $100,000 has more than quadrupled at the public flagship and research universities. Incredibly, the average institutional grant to students from high-income families is actually larger than the average grant to low- or middle-income families.
Partly as a result, high-performing students from low-income groups are much less likely to attend college than their high-income counterparts — and are less likely to ever get four-year degrees if they do attend.
These are ominous facts at a time when the college degree has become the basic price of admission to both the middle class and the new global economy. Unless the country reverses this trend, upward mobility through public higher education will pretty much come to a halt.