Hard Times for Poor Students

Hard Times for Poor Students

Remember the good old days in student financial aid? Those who needed help with tuition, room and board were pretty much guaranteed it in packages where grants exceeded loans. Need tended to be the way financial aid money was allocated, and while parents with means had to step up to the plate, no one had to hock their infant child to make sure their firstborn had a crack at higher education. States provided money for higher education, funding their big universities as well as generous financial aid programs. Federal programs, like Pell Grants, provided as much as 90 percent of average tuition payments.
So, when students tell me they have taken out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for an undergraduate degree, I can’t help but wax and wane about the good old days. Indeed, a new report on the affordability of higher education confirms the vague impression that it is becoming harder for students to matriculate.
According to the National Center for Public Policy and Education’s report, Losing Ground: A National Status Report on the Affordability of American Higher Education, increases in tuition have made higher education less affordable for most American families. Financial aid has not kept pace with inflation. Students are borrowing more than they ever did. Even though states are increasing their support of public higher education, tuition costs are rising faster. And, most importantly, the steepest increases in public college tuition take place during periods of economic hardship, like now when everyone is grousing about recession and high unemployment.
A distinguished group of scholars and researchers guided this report, which is an excellent resource because it details the costs of education in all of our 50 states. The appendix also talks about how much of federal Pell Grant money is spent on low-income students in each state. It looks at issues such as tuition and state appropriations, and mostly paints a challenging picture of ways that students manage to fund their education. The bottom line is that students work harder, and their families dig deeper, to pay for higher education. Indeed, average debt amounts at colleges and universities across the country range from a low $5,000 for undergraduates at Florida International University to a high of $30,000 for doctoral students at the Union Institute in Ohio.
Human beings are our nation’s greatest set of resources. Yet it seems we ignore the development of our human resources by making higher education more inaccessible than it ever has been. The Losing Ground report asks a pivotal question in the first page of its narrative. “How much encouragement and incentive does each state wish to give its citizenry and work force to raise their knowledge and skills beyond the high school level?” In other words, how much support are taxpayers willing to provide those whose earnings will support their care in the future? How willing are taxpayers to develop a high-tech, high-pay future? If we cannot ask these questions, or if we presume that education is simply about individuals attempting to improve their earnings potential, we reduce our relative support to higher education, as many states have done.
To be sure, states have had to juggle a range of financial pressures. Unlike the federal government, most states are not constitutionally able to float large deficits. Some are required to balance budgets annually. This means that when “homeland security” needs peak, and when pressing social costs such as spending for public schools, public assistance and medical care spike, it is easier to cut higher education than anything else. And some states have been whittling away at higher education. Massachusetts, long revered for its educational excellence, led the nation in cutting higher education spending in 2001-2002, dropping it by 6.2 percent. The state’s flagship institution, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, lost 95 staff members, cut varsity sports teams and heating, and used other measures to manage a shortfall of $15 million, according to the report.
In New Jersey, costs were cut by 5 percent, causing a 19 percent tuition increase. In Kentucky, despite the influence of a governor supportive of higher education, the budget was cut by 2 percent.
While it is understandable that statewide budget cuts will result in higher education cuts, when budget cuts also result in higher tuition, access is doubly curtailed. When more families find college unaffordable, more students are making decisions that may be cost-effective but are skill-inefficient. Many are going to school part-time, some are entirely forgoing college for the workplace, and some are attending school full-time and working nearly as much.
Yet most students know education is the bridge over which they cross to participate in middle-class American life. Students cling tenaciously to the notion that higher education will transform their lives, but public policy has made it harder for them to get help in their quest to enhance their human capital portfolio.
Some students still have the stereotypical college life — the four years at a good school with episodic part-time work experiences and a seamless transition to a good job. Too many students have another story to tell — they work harder and longer for higher education, and they pay more for it. As the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education report says, we are losing ground in making higher education affordable and accessible, especially for poor students.



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