Equal opportunity in higher education is in serious trouble in the United States today. Higher education opportunities are receding for those in the bottom quartile of family income, for African Americans, and for most Hispanics. Other groups in somewhat lesser but still serious trouble include the middle two quartiles of household income and men, as well as students in many regions of the country affected by high prices but who lack adequate financial aid to finance college.
The public policy dilemma is simply this. On the one hand, the future of our country depends on our ability to expand post-secondary education and training opportunities for all Americans. The public interests at stake include reducing poverty, providing constructive pathways to equality, and improving the productivity of the workforce. The imperative is to extend post-secondary opportunity to a much broader range of the population, in a greater variety of ways, with higher quality, available to people throughout their adult lives. People who lack post-secondary exposure face an increasingly bleak economic future, with devastating consequences for public and private well-being.
On the other hand, higher education has received a declining share of state resources over the last twenty-five years. Recently, higher education seems to have moved to the bottom of the state budget priorities. Higher education has failed to present a clear and convincing case for why it “needs” state funds to reduce the price of education for students who, according to the needs analysis formulas used to allocate financial aid, have no financial need .
Higher education continues to apply for state funds that it does not “need” in this sense and cannot make a compelling case for its application when compared to more compelling applications for state funds. Prisons, welfare, Medicaid, and K-12 education are making more compelling requests for scarce state funds than higher education has been able to do, leading to a declining share of state budgets.
The consequences of public higher education’s inability to acquire adequate state funding for its true needs, combined with a general reluctance to raise tuition fees for those who can afford to pay most or all of their own education costs, is the loss of higher education opportunities. to the students
Lost opportunity takes three main forms: 1) enrollment limits that reduce capacity at institutions, 2) compromised quality where students are admitted to institutions that lack sufficient resources to provide adequate, appropriate, and timely educational experiences, and 3) ) loss of affordability as the costs of attendance rise faster than the combined resources of families and the financial aid to pay for them.
It is not worth the trade-off of low tuition for wealthy students at the expense of capacity, quality, and affordability for all students, enrolled or not. Well-off students don’t need the subsidies they are receiving at public two- and four-year institutions. They absorb the resources institutions need to expand capacity, ensure quality, and improve affordability for students from low- and middle-income families.
Gradually, low enrollment has gone from being a vehicle to an opportunity to its current status as an obstacle. It’s time for higher education to make a more convincing case for the state funding it requests. The basis of that case must be the guarantee that every dollar requested from the states will be spent to educate only students who have demonstrated financial need for that state dollar. Those who cannot demonstrate financial need should be expected to pay the full cost of their own higher education.
Unless and until higher education reforms its requests for state funding of educational programs for students who really need the financial assistance to attend college, higher education cannot make as compelling a case for limited state funding as they can. welfare, Medicaid, prisons and K-12. education. Higher education is inherently elitist and primarily serves the wealthiest families in society. It doesn’t have, it isn’t, and it can’t make a convincing case for its funding needs from states when the resources of its clientele seem so rich compared to the resources of its competition in welfare, prisons, and K-12.
The nation must expand post-secondary education and training opportunities for future workers, voters, taxpayers, parents, and leaders. The choice we face is whether to reform the financing of higher education now to expand opportunity, or to procrastinate and pay the consequences for our failure to reduce revenues and fiscal resources and increase the costs of social programs. in social assistance, health care, corrections and the like. We do not need additional resources to expand post-secondary opportunities. Rather, we must first reallocate what states provide, away from those that don’t need it and toward those that do.