Equality of higher education opportunity is in very deep trouble in the United States today. Higher education opportunity is moving backward for those from the bottom quartile of family income, for African Americans, and for most Hispanics. Other groups that are in somewhat less but still serious trouble include the two middle family income quartiles, and males, as well students in many regions of the country affected by high prices but lacking adequate financial aid to finance college.
The public policy dilemma is simply this. On the one hand our country’s future depends on our ability to broaden postsecondary education and training opportunities for all Americans. The public interests at stake include reducing poverty, providing constructive paths to equality, and improving labor force productivity. The imperative is to extend postsecondary opportunity to a far broader range of the population, in a greater variety of forms, at higher quality, available to individuals throughout their adult lives. Individuals lacking postsecondary exposure face an increasingly grim economic future, with devastating consequences to both private and public welfare.
On the other hand, higher education has received a declining share of state resources for the last twenty-five years. Recently, higher education appears to have moved to the bottom of state budget priorities. Higher education has been unable to present a clear and compelling case why it “needs” state funds to reduce the price of education to students who, under the need analysis formulas used to allocate grant aid, are not financially needy.
Higher education continues to ask for state funds that it does not “need” in this sense and cannot make a compelling case for its request when measured against more compelling requests for state funds. Prisons, welfare, Medicaid, and K-12 education are presenting more compelling requests for scarce state funds than higher education has been able to do, thus leading to declining shares of state budgets.
The consequences of public higher education’s failure to acquire adequate state funds for its true needs, combined with a general reluctance to raise tuitions for those who can afford to pay for more or all of the costs of their own educations, is loss of higher education opportunity to students.
The loss of opportunity takes three main forms: 1) enrollment limits that curtail capacity in institutions, 2) compromised quality where students are admitted to institutions that lack sufficient resources to provide adequate, appropriate, and timely educational experiences, and 3) the loss of affordability as attendance costs increase faster than the combined resources of families and financial aid to pay them.
The tradeoff of low tuition for affluent students at the expense of capacity, quality, and affordability for all students – enrolled or not – is not worth it. Affluent students do not need the subsidies that they are receiving in public two-year and four-year institutions. They absorb resources that institutions need to expand capacity, assure quality, and improve affordability for students from poor and middle income families.
Gradually, low tuition has moved from a vehicle to opportunity to its current status as an obstacle. It is time for higher education to make a more compelling case for the state funds it asks for. The foundation of that case must be assurance that every dollar requested of states will be spent to educate only students who have shown financial need for that state dollar. Those who cannot show financial need must be expected to pay the full cost of their own higher educations.
Unless and until higher education reforms its requests for state funding of education programs for students who truly need the financial assistance to attend college, higher education cannot make as compelling a case for limited state funds as can welfare, Medicaid, prisons, and K-12 education. Higher education is inherently elitist, serving mainly the most affluent families in society. It has not, is not, and cannot make a compelling case for its funding needs from the states when the resources of its clientele appear so rich compared to the resources of its competition in welfare, prisons, and K-12.
The nation must broaden postsecondary education and training opportunities for those who will be workers, voters, taxpayers, parents, and leaders in the future. The choice we face is whether to reform higher education finance now to broaden opportunity, or to defer the question and pay for the consequences of our failure in reduced income and tax resources and increased social program costs in welfare, health care, corrections, and the like. We do not need additional resources to broaden postsecondary opportunity. Rather we need to first reallocate that which states provide – away from those who do not need them and toward those who do.