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The Universities in Trouble

Engraving by Grandville

But the public–private partnership that did much to democratize American higher education has been coming apart. In 1976, federal Pell grants for low-income students covered 72 percent of the average cost of attending a four-year state institution; by 2003, Pell grants covered only 38 percent of the cost. Meanwhile, financial aid administered by the states is being allocated more and more on the basis of “merit” rather than need—meaning that scholarships are going increasingly to high-achieving students from high-income families, leaving deserving students from low-income families without the means to pay for college.

In 2002, a federal advisory committee issued a report, aptly entitled “Empty Promises,” which estimated, according to Donald E. Heller, a leading authority on the economics of higher education, that “more than 400,000 students nationally from families with incomes below $50,000” met the standards of college admission “and yet were unable to enroll in a four-year college because of financial barriers. More than 160,000 of these students did not attend any college because of these barriers, not even a two-year institution.” Two years later, Heller pointed out that “the college-going rates of the highest-socioeconomic-status students with the lowest achievement levels is the same level as the poorest students with the highest achievement levels.”12 In short, bright and focused kids from poor families are going to college at the same rate as unfocused or low-scoring kids from families much better off.

This fact is an affront to America’s claim to be a nation of equal opportunity where talent and effort can overcome poverty and prejudice. Today the United States stands tenth, along with Australia, Spain, and Sweden, behind Canada, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, and France in the percentage of its young people (ages 25–34) who have earned a post-secondary degree. Since secondary education abroad is often stronger than in the United States, the comparative educational attainment of Americans is probably even worse than these rankings suggest. Among adults in the age group 55–64, we still lead the world in the percentage who are college graduates—which means not only that over the past three decades many nations have surpassed us, but that, in the aggregate, younger Americans are less well educated than their elders.13

Before the crash, a national discussion seemed to be getting underway about these alarming trends. Influential educators—notably William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—were arguing that academically promising students from low-income families who apply to selective colleges should get “a thumb on the scale” in the admissions competition—an advantage comparable to what alumni children, athletes, and minority candidates already enjoy. Proposals of this sort were responses to the fact that at most selective colleges, enrollment of low-income students has been extremely small and getting smaller—and this at a time of unprecedented accumulation of institutional wealth.14

Until recently, among the so-called “Ivy plus” colleges, only Emory and Stanford showed growth in their percentage of Pell-eligible students—and the increases were tiny: a half percent at Stanford, one fifth of a percent at Emory. Harvard and, among prestigious liberal arts colleges, Smith and Amherst have been trying to reverse the trend. But now that money is drying up, it remains to be seen if such efforts will continue. In the wake of the endowment meltdown, the Harvard admissions office has announced a 50 percent cut in its travel budget—meaning that recruiters will be traveling to fewer high schools outside the orbit of the usual “feeder” schools. In making the announcement, Harvard gave a “less is more” spin to the news: “Because we will be contacting people in a more robust way in the mail and online,” said the dean of admissions, “we believe we will be more effective rather than less effective.”15 We’ll see.

Last year, before the economy fell off the cliff, Harvard and Yale (followed by other Ivies) announced huge increases in the financial aid they intended to offer, beginning with the current academic year, to students from families with annual incomes up to $200,000. Given the price tag of the new policy (more than $20 million per annum was the early estimate at Harvard), Ivy League administrators may be having second thoughts. At the time, some critics doubted whether it was the fairest use of institutional resources in view of the greater need of less prosperous families and the inevitable pressure on less wealthy colleges to follow suit by reducing costs for relatively affluent candidates, leaving themselves unable to offer adequate scholarship support to needier applicants. “Affirmative action for the upper-middle-class” was what Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, called the new policy. Theda Skocpol, a former Harvard dean, wondered why America’s leading universities chose to make “the annual cost for families up to the 95th income percentile less than half the cost of purchasing a new luxury car.”16

Favoring the rich is hardly an attitude exclusive to private institutions. At public universities, especially the flagship campuses where children of the affluent are most likely to go, the financing system is also regressive. Qualifying for state-subsidized tuition at UCLA or Berkeley requires no means-testing for California residents—with the result that the child of a public school teacher is likely to pay nearly the same amount as the child of a trust and estate attorney.17 All these distortions suggest that something is wrong with our system of higher education—starting, but not ending, at the top.

The fact is that America’s colleges —with notable exceptions including community colleges, historically black colleges, and a few distinctive private institutions such as Berea College in Kentucky (Berea charges no tuition but requires campus work from its students, who all come from low-income backgrounds)—have lately been exacerbating more than ameliorating the widening disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society. Too many students are unable to continue their education beyond high school, and of those who do, too many find themselves in underfunded and overcrowded colleges. A report released in January by the Lumina Foundation, “Trends in College Spending,” concludes that “higher education is becoming more stratified,” with enrollment growing in the institutions with the least resources—the public community colleges—as more and more students are “pushed out of higher-priced institutions.”

No doubt, much of the relative decline in America’s college-educated population can be attributed to poor preparation by K–12 schools, especially in inner-city and rural communities, and to social pathologies that leave young people—including, disproportionately, minorities—unready for, or uninterested in, higher education. But a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their inability to pay, and we have failed seriously to confront the problem.


So what is to be done? The question, of course, has become more daunting since untold billions in institutional and family assets evaporated over the last few months. But there are signs of creative thinking among educators as well as in government—and some suggestions that barriers to educational opportunity must come down as a matter of national interest.

One approach is radical cost-cutting —and anyone who has spent time in academic institutions can sympathize with the view that waste and inertia are among their salient features. Colleges may be known as places where liberalism is the dominant political point of view, but they are tenaciously conservative with respect to themselves: once a program or professorial position or new facility is established, it is very hard to get rid of it. The current financial shocks could be salutary if they provoke serious review of what really matters on each campus.

But the economizing impulse carries hazards too. There is growing talk, encouraged recently by Senator Lamar Alexander, a former US secretary of education and president of the University of Tennessee, about cutting back the traditional four years of college to three. Much time is doubtless wasted in college, and the long vacation peri-ods that students expect, especially those from affluent families, are anachronistic holdovers from an era when seasonal rhythms required young men to go home and help with harvest or planting.

But the American idea of college has always made room for some form of liberal or general education before, or along with, specialized study—and squeezing out a year would leave students, who are already under immense pressure to equip themselves with marketable skills, less able to think about history, society, and the broader issues that are at the heart of liberal education. And while the idea of a three-year BA is picking up support in the United States, educators in other nations are moving in the opposite direction: Hong Kong, for instance, is expanding university education from three years to four in order to make room for compulsory humanities courses on the model of American universities such as Columbia and Chicago.18

More promising than the three-year college idea are the enhancements of student aid contained in the final version of the “stimulus bill” that emerged from the compromise between the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Obama on February 17. The bill contains expanded tax credits for tuition payments as well as increased funding for the Pell grant program. Moreover, the President and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, are pushing to make Pell grants into a true entitlement—a program, that is, which Congress is compelled to sustain and adjust annually for inflation, on the model of Social Security and Medicare. The stimulus bill also contains substantial new funding for job-training programs that provide vouchers that community college students can use toward tuition.19

Inside and outside of government, there is also growing awareness that the whole financial aid system must be overhauled—and that the barriers it places between needy students and college do not always boil down simply to a matter of money. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms used by the Department of Education are notoriously complex and intimidating, and they discourage students from low-income families from applying to college. Children of such families are unlikely to accept the concept of deferring payment for education by taking on debt, and are likely to be in high schools with overworked and undertrained college counselors who have neither the time nor the expertise to help them.20

Perhaps the most substantive response to these problems to date is a report released last fall jointly by the Spencer and Lumina foundations and the College Board entitled “Fulfilling the Commitment: Recommendations for Reforming Federal Student Aid.” Its authors call for elimination of FAFSA and for the IRS to report financial information directly to the Department of Education, thus cutting out entirely the requirement that families work through the maze of disclosure forms to determine their eligibility for federal support. Instead, every Pell-eligible family would automatically receive notification in the mail about how much the government would give toward college costs. The report also calls for changing loan programs so that debt incurred to pay the cost of education would be repaid on a graduated scale keyed to post-college income; and, perhaps most important, it calls for a federal program to establish education savings accounts for low-income families to be tapped at the time a child is ready for college.

These are not utopian suggestions.21 Nor are they fundamentally hostile to the prevailing system of American higher education: a mixed system of private, public, large and small, residential and commuter, religious and secular, nonprofit and for-profit institutions. Neither the enhancements put forward by the Obama administration nor the suggestions coming from policy analysts will eliminate—indeed, they hardly alter at all—the huge distinctions between, say, public community colleges through which students seek a foothold in middle-class life and private colleges where students take a junior year abroad in what Mitchell Stevens, in his book Creating a Class, likens to the nineteenth-century “grand tour” on which children of the well-to-do picked up some social polish in Europe.22


A couple of months ago I was asked to speak at a community college in a once-thriving, now-declining coastal town in southern New England. My subject was Abraham Lincoln, and I had no idea what degree of interest to expect from the students, many of whom were minorities, or recent immigrants, or the children of struggling blue-collar families. Even a year ago, I suspect, such a topic as Lincoln would not have attracted much interest. But the turnout on this occasion was surprisingly large and the students more than attentive. I sensed that the election of our first African-American president, his frequent invocations of Lincoln, and his own critical devotion to American ideals had encouraged these students —perhaps for the first time—to take a hopeful view of their own life chances and a real interest in the nation in which they found themselves coming of age.

Those who asked questions—ranging from a West Indian immigrant to a native New Englander—were astute and attuned to Lincoln’s struggle to reconcile his personal animus against slavery with his constraining sense of executive responsibility, to his changing views on the question of racial equality, and, above all, to his effort to defend and extend the idea of equal opportunity as the essential American promise. When I read aloud Lincoln’s words that “the leading object of government is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life,” there was much nodding—not of the type that signifies the onset of sleep, but the type that expresses assent.23

I came away that day—the college is facing severe budget cuts—with a painful sense of disjunction between rising hope and declining opportunity. I was reminded that we have in this country a highly stratified system of education in which “merit” is the ubiquitous slogan but disparity of opportunity is often the reality. Even with our best efforts, this fact is not likely to change fundamentally anytime soon. Indeed, the financial crisis has made it harder to change. But as we consider the future of the nation, which surely depends more than ever on an educated citizenry, it will be of great importance to keep in mind a point too little acted on during the boom years but now undeniable and urgent. John Adams put it succinctly some 225 years ago: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it.”24

April 15, 2009


Should Higher Education Be Free? August 13, 2009

  1. 10

    Cotton Mather, in American Higher Education: A Documentary History edited by Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith (University of Chicago Press, 1961), Vol. 1, p. 16; Margery Foster, ‘Out of Smalle Beginnings…’: An Economic History of Harvard College in the Puritan Period (Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 105.

  2. 11

    Dave Gershman, “Legislative Study Group Explores Idea of Privatizing the University of Michigan,” Ann Arbor News, December 18, 2008.

  3. 12

    Donald E. Heller quoted in Paul Attewell and Davd E. Lavin, Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007), p. 199; Donald E. Heller, “A Bold Proposal: Increasing College Access Without Spending More Money,” Crosstalk, Fall 2004; and Brian K. Fitzgerald and Jennifer A. Delaney, “Educational Opportunity in America,” Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students, edited by Donald E. Heller (ACE/Praeger, 2002).

  4. 13

    Recent data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is summarized in a February 2009 report from the Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education,” available at www.luminafoundation.org. For a critique of these data, see Clifford Adelman, “The Propaganda of International Comparisons,” InsideHigher Ed.com, December 15, 2008. Adelman doubts that comparing the diverse US population of 310 million with, for instance, 5.4 million Danes makes a convincing case for America’s relative decline.

  5. 14

    Despite Surging Endowments, High-Ranking Universities and Colleges Show Disappointing Results in Enrolling Low-Income Students,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Autumn 2007.

  6. 15

    Jillian K. Kushner, “Admit Office Slashes Travel Budget,” The Harvard Crimson, March 3, 2009.

  7. 16

    Richard Ekman, “Free Ride to College? Bearing the Brunt of Challenging Expectations on Who Should Pay for College,” University Business, April 2008; Theda Skocpol and Suzanne Mettler, “Back to School,” Democracy, Fall 2008. For my own view of the matter, see “Ivy-League Letdown” (coauthored with my colleague Roger Lehecka), The New York Times, January 22, 2008.

  8. 17

    Thomas J. Kane, The Price of Admission: Rethinking How Americans Pay for College (Brookings Institution Press/Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), p. 132. For information on cost and need-based financial aid in the California public education system, see Robert J. Birgenau, Mark G. Yudof, and Christopher F. Edley Jr., “Challenges to Public Universities,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Winter 2009, p. 37.

  9. 18

    See George Keller, “Why Colleges Should Offer 3-Year Diplomas,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 14, 2008; and Scott Jaschik, “The Buzz and Spin on 3-Year Degrees,” www.InsideHigherEd.com, February 17, 2009. For reforms in Hong Kong, see Mara Hvistendhal, “They’re Hiring in Hong Kong,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 3, 2009.

  10. 19

    Megan Eckstein, “Community Colleges See Stimulus Bill as Bonanza for Their Students,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 17, 2009.

  11. 20

    See Christopher Avery and Thomas J. Kane, “Student Perceptions of College Opportunities: The Boston Coach Program,” in College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It, edited by Caroline M. Hoxby (University of Chicago Press, 2004). Several private philanthropies, including the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and the New York Times Company Foundation, have been doing exemplary work identifying and mentoring low-income students and assisting them to and through college.

  12. 21

    For one suggestion that is utopian—if also an admirable ideal—see Joseph A. Soares, The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 197. Soares proposes that “elite colleges…should aim for an initial goal of recruiting at least 25 percent of their entering students from the bottom two socio-economic status (SES) quartiles.”

  13. 22

    Stevens’s book details many reasons why “by the time upper-middle-class seventeen-year-olds sit down to write their applications, most of the race to top colleges has already been run and they already enjoy comfortable leads.”

  14. 23

    Lincoln, Message to Congress, July 4, 1861.

  15. 24

    John Adams to John Jebb, Septem-ber 10, 1785, quoted in The Adams-Jefferson Letters, edited by Lester J. Cappon (Simon and Schuster, 1959), p. 480.

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