How Can We Keep Public Universities Accessible?

Pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have a vital pub­lic mis­sion — backed by decades of pub­lic invest­ment — to pro­vide access to an afford­able edu­ca­tion for stu­dents. How­ever, faced with dwin­dling state sup­port, many state uni­ver­si­ties have shifted their financial-aid dol­lars to attract stu­dents who will help schools gen­er­ate more tuition rev­enue or move up in the rankings.

As Mar­ian Wang’s recent inves­ti­ga­tion found, pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have been giv­ing a grow­ing share of grants to the wealth­i­est stu­dents, and a shrink­ing share to the poor­est stu­dents. A ris­ing sticker price and a drop in avail­able aid means many of the lowest-income stu­dents are being squeezed out of an afford­able pub­lic education.

What should be done about how schools are using their finan­cial aid? With bud­get cut­backs, how can pub­lic schools mind their bot­tom line while stay­ing acces­si­ble for the lowest-income stu­dents? We had higher edu­ca­tion experts weigh in on Red­dit. Here are some highlights:

Jerry Lucido, head of the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Cen­ter for Enroll­ment Research Pol­icy and Practice: 

I have made the argu­ment in a recent Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress report that all insti­tu­tions could cut back non-need based aid (of all types) in favor of need-based aid with­out impact on rank­ings and for the pub­lic ben­e­fit. Pub­lic insti­tu­tions, as the arti­cle notes, should cer­tainly do so, but pri­vate insti­tu­tions are also held in the pub­lic trust as “non-profit” enti­ties and should not be left off the hook. Insti­tu­tions could reduce non-need based aid an agreed upon fixed per­cent per year, mov­ing it to needy stu­dents, but one insti­tu­tion will not do it if all do not come along. Depart­ment of Jus­tice con­cerns about “price fix­ing” make this coop­er­a­tion dif­fi­cult. The DoJ and oth­ers should not con­sider this fix­ing prices, given that com­pe­ti­tion will remain the same. Over­all costs would drop for needy stu­dents if this were permitted.

Anthony Carnevale, Direc­tor and Research Pro­fes­sor of the George­town Uni­ver­sity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Workforce:

What can be done? In com­bi­na­tion, both race– and class-based affir­ma­tive action can at least ensure that highly qual­i­fied African-American, His­panic, and lower-income stu­dents gain access to well-funded and selec­tive col­leges that lead to elite careers. But affir­ma­tive action is not enough to make more than a dent in the larger sys­tem­atic racial and class bias in the core eco­nomic and edu­ca­tional mech­a­nisms at the root of inequal­ity. Affir­ma­tive action, whether it is race — or class-based — or some com­bi­na­tion of the two can help out those who strive and over­come the odds, yet does rel­a­tively lit­tle to change the odds them­selves. There are always African-American, His­panic, and work­ing class strivers who beat the odds, but for the mass of dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple it is the odds that count. The odds are stacked against African-American, Latino, and low-income stu­dents. Dis­ad­van­tage, like priv­i­lege, comes from a com­plex net­work of mutu­ally rein­forc­ing eco­nomic and edu­ca­tional mech­a­nisms that only can be dealt with through a mul­ti­fac­eted eco­nomic and edu­ca­tional pol­icy response.

Richard Kahlen­berg, author and senior fel­low at The Cen­tury Foun­da­tion, where he writes about a vari­ety of edu­ca­tion issues:

Mar­ian Wang’s ter­rific arti­cle shows that between 1996 and 2012, pub­lic insti­tu­tions moved scarce resources away from low-income stu­dents to wealthy stu­dents. This makes lit­tle sense from a pub­lic pol­icy stand­point. The rea­son tax­pay­ers sup­port finan­cial aid is that our whole soci­ety ben­e­fits when more peo­ple go to col­lege and get a great edu­ca­tion. Wealthy stu­dents will go to col­lege with or with­out aid. So fed­eral poli­cies should pro­vide an incen­tive (sticks and car­rots) for states to redi­rect non-need merit aid to need-based grants. We need to focus on on those stu­dents for whom the funds will make the dif­fer­ence in their deci­sion of whether or not to attend college.

Rhonda Von­shay Sharpe, Research Direc­tor for the The Research Net­work on Racial and Eth­nic Inequal­ity at Duke University:

Does any­one even know what “more afford­able” means? It is impor­tant to remem­ber that tax­pay­ers are not a homo­ge­neous group. So I can imag­ine that some high earn­ing tax­pay­ers (often mis­taken for the mid­dle class) see pub­lic col­leges in the same way they see pub­lic K-12 schools — make them bet­ter and more com­pet­i­tive so that I am not “taxed” twice to edu­cate my child. As for mov­ing resources away from low-income stu­dents to wealthy stu­dents, one could argue that it is a return on invest­ment deci­sion. The value added to the low-income child, even if they don’t grad­u­ate, may be higher than the value added to the wealthy child. But the wealthy child is more likely, and their par­ents prob­a­bly have resources now, to make gifts to the college.

Zakiya Smith, for­mer White House Senior Pol­icy Advi­sor for Education:

What if the fed­eral gov­ern­ment incented states to ensure that at least pub­lic col­lege finan­cial aid was going to low-income stu­dents? States that did a bet­ter job could get more fed­eral aid, or per­haps col­leges that skew their aid to more low-income stu­dents could get big­ger breaks on some reg­u­la­tory burdens?…some of the nation’s most elite col­leges ONLY give need based aid. But, they have big endow­ments and aren’t in com­pe­ti­tion with any­one else. Places like Berea col­lege in Ken­tucky are totally free to all stu­dents and have a high pro­por­tion of Pell eli­gi­ble stu­dents. The data avail­able on the Col­lege Nav­i­ga­tor that ProP­ub­lica used to iden­tify these neg­a­tive trends could also be used to iden­tify col­leges that are doing this the right way.

I think the rat­ings sys­tem recently pro­posed by Pres­i­dent Obama would actu­ally dis­cour­age, rather than encour­age, this sort of behav­ior, because it would (he says) be based on the value-add of col­lege and include fac­tors such as how well they serve low-income stu­dents. That would dis­cour­age col­leges from cream­ing top kids and pro­vide incen­tives for them to recruit and suc­cess­fully serve more dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. Of course, design­ing the right weights/measures/etc is dif­fi­cult, but it seems like we all acknowl­edge that the cur­rent insti­tu­tional pres­tige incen­tives are doing us no favors.

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