Not Making the Grade

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, September 17, 2004)


The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education this week released its biannual “report card”, grading states on their citizens’ access to higher education. While results varied among states, the report’s overall findings indicate that while students are more prepared for college coming out of high school than they were a decade ago, the affordability of higher education has decreased over the same period.

To determine states’ success at preparing students for college-level work, the Center uses a formula that includes — among other factors — the percentage of high schoolers taking upper-level college prep courses, students’ scores on national assessment tests and the percentage of high-school students who graduate. And by those measures, most states are doing a better job than they did ten years ago. As former governors James Hunt and Garrey Carruthers wrote in their foreword for the report:

“The most positive and encouraging finding of this report is in the new ten-year retrospective. Over the past decade there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of high school students taking courses that prepare them for college. Although the country has far to go in public school improvement, many high schools have strengthened the preparation of their graduates for college.”

But that improved college preparation has not translated into more students attending college. The survey found 19 states where a lower percentage of potential college students are taking advantage of higher education than a decade ago, including states as diverse as Illinois, New York, Oregon and Vermont.

While the Center’s report doesn’t prove causality, it does show a pervasive affordability problem that is among the logical reasons for the lack of participation. As the organization’s president, Patrick Callan, told the New York Times:

“We have a system of public financing of higher education that is probably dysfunctional, both nationally and in most states. We have no understanding of what’s reasonable to pay. The national consensus has fallen apart. We don’t think we have discovered the ultimate truth. But we think this country needs a discussion about college financing and affordability.”

Tuition has climbed at a greater rate than inflation or earnings, and the percentage of a typical family income needed to pay for a four-year degree at a public college has grown accordingly, the report explains. It also notes that while financial aid has increased nationwide, that increase has not kept pace with rising costs. Only three states (California, Minnesota and Utah) received a letter grade of “C” or better when it came to college affordability, with 36 states earning failing grades from the Center.

While the study’s affordability findings are no doubt discouraging, they can hardly be considered surprising, given that the majority of states faced severe budget shortfalls in recent years and had to cut spending – with higher education among the programs on the chopping block. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found, states are already projecting a collective budget deficit of more than $40 billion for fiscal year 2005. That’s even more of a problem due to the massive numbers of students coming of college age in the next few years since, as the “report card” notes, recent budget cuts have already left states such as California and Florida with decreased student capacity.

Obviously, the state of higher education is an ongoing source of concern. As long as tuition continues to increase far more than financial aid, lower-income Americans will continue to be priced out of the system or saddled with large amounts of debt. The Center’s “report card” paints a grim picture, but one that was expected.

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