Back to School
To assure higher-education access for all, we need more than just elite handouts for the lucky few.
This fall, like every year, nervous parents are delivering their sons and daughters to America’s colleges and universities, replacing the cheering families who each spring happily anticipate useful and, yes, remunerative careers for their newly graduated offspring marching through auditoriums, college greens, and football stadiums. In laudatory speeches marking these commencement exercises, college officials frequently tout the collective prowess of U.S. higher education, along with the special strengths of their own institutions. At the conclusion of her first year in office last June, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust joined this venerable rhetorical tradition. “American higher education is the most valuable educational resource in the world,” she intoned to the assembled alums of the nation’s oldest college. “The genius of the American system of higher education is that it has managed to combine broad access with unsurpassed intellectual distinction.”
But the synthesis of excellence and access celebrated by Faust is rapidly coming undone. U.S.-based universities continue to rank at the top of lists put together even by foreign assessors of relative institutional excellence, and America is admired across the world for its historic primacy in offering higher education to the many, not just the few. At home, the faith of Americans that higher degrees and advanced research are central to social opportunity and economic vitality has, if anything, only intensified with the advent of the information revolution and the post-industrial economy. But the United States no longer leads the world in the attainment of college degrees, and there are growing imbalances in popular access and resource gaps among institutions of higher learning that threaten to turn higher education from a great equalizer of opportunity to a force that deepens inequality.
Perhaps that is why this past year also witnessed a mini-drama between the Senate Finance Committee and the leaders of the nation’s wealthiest private universities. Grabbing the media spotlight at a time when tax-exempt private universities are building ever more eye-popping endowments (per capita leaders like Princeton and Stanford have more than $1.5 million per student, and Harvard’s absolute total has now reached $38 billion), the Committee’s ranking member, Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa, proposed that universities be required to spend at least 5 percent of their income each year (as private tax-exempt foundations are already required to do).
This alarmed the leaders of super-rich colleges, and they parried by creaming a bit of endowment-return froth to lower net tuition and expenses for middle- and upper-middle-class students, as well as for lower-income enrollees. A wave of commentary followed. While some praised private college largesse, regional newspaper reporters often explained, as did the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, that “few” other colleges “can afford to follow the Ivy League…The ripple effect of decisions by Harvard and Yale…isn’t going to produce a tidal wave of new chances for economically disadvantaged youngsters. In fact, the opposite is more likely, with students from relatively well-off families filling many of the slots that might be available for those from low-income brackets.” Op-ed critics chimed in, pointing out that the options open to the Harvards, Princetons, Yales, and Stanfords of the world are light years from the tough fiscal trade-offs faced by the modestly endowed universities and tax-starved community colleges that a vast majority of Americans attend. “Bravo for Yale and Harvard, but what about the rest?” asked Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau in USA Today.
The debate did little to expand college access, but it did dramatize why fundamental solutions must involve more and better-directed resources from the federal government, not just regulatory gimmicks that induce charity from the richest universities. Historically, U.S. higher education evolved very differently from European and other foreign systems, which use state-funded universities to channel a few highly selected elites into national bureaucratic service. In America, private benefactors, churches, and state governments promoted a raucously decentralized, competitive hodge-podge of thousands of colleges and universities, collectively offering many more citizens routes into all kinds of vocations. Nevertheless, the U.S. federal government has long used public expenditures, regulations, and tax breaks to leverage access and institution-building. Especially after the Civil War, when the land-grant university system spread higher education across the country and into practical areas of knowledge, and again during the golden era following World War II, when the GI Bill expanded student access and science grants fostered widespread research capacities, the federal government played a pivotal role in shaping a capacious and inclusive system of higher education.
However, the federal role has shifted since the 1980s, contributing–along with private and state-level choices–to diminished access and institutional disparities. The time has come to redirect federal efforts–to focus on expanded grants and simplified loans for low- and middle-income college students, and to build the capacities of the public community colleges and universities to open doors of opportunity for the many, rather than cater to the wealthiest and luckiest few.
The Closing College Door
On June 16 and 17, during his early summer “economic tour” through several swing states, Senator Barack Obama visited two college campuses in Michigan. Both were non-elite campuses–Kettering University in Flint and Wayne Community College in Taylor–where, as the Detroit Free Press explained, “Paying for education is a daily struggle for countless students…as tuition has increased while state subsidies to universities have fallen.” These were just two institutions of higher learning, chosen because of their location in a politically pivotal state. But the struggles faced by their students are emblematic of the sorry state of American higher education.
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