Higher Education Report Card: Many States Fail Affordability Test
By Charles Dervarics
“Measuring Up 2004: National Report Card on Higher Education” gives many states D’s and F’s on enrollment and affordability issues, in some cases noting the widening gaps that leave low-income students and students of color behind their peers.
Compared with 10 years ago, fewer young and working-age adults are enrolling in post-high school education programs. Colleges and universities also have become less affordable for students and families during this time, says the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
“The gap separating Whites from Blacks and Latinos is getting wider,” said Katy Haycock, director of The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., one of the speakers at a symposium used to release the study. “We’ve gotten complacent about access.”
Three-dozen states received F’s on college affordability, including Florida, Massachusetts, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi. Seventeen states declined on every indicator, including percent of family income needed to pay for college and state investments in need-based financial aid.
By comparison, only two states improved on more than half of the affordability indicators. California had the highest grade with a B, while Minnesota and Utah had C’s. Eleven states had barely passing marks, scoring D’s.
Typical of the trend was New Jersey, which had a D but came under criticism for suggesting that families can afford to pay for costs of a public four-year college. A New Jersey family must commit 34 percent of its family income for tuition in 2004, compared with just 24 percent of income a decade ago.
“America’s higher education system is still the gold standard in the world,” said Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy. Unfortunately, he added, “American families don’t have enough gold.”
The problems in affordability affect low-income students and students of color, the report noted. In Louisiana, for example, 26 percent of minorities ages 18 to 24 are in college now. A decade ago, the rate was 30 percent.
In North Carolina among low-income students, 28 percent of traditional college-age youth were in college a decade ago. The corresponding rate now is 22 percent.
Some conference participants cited the findings in seeking a new call to action in higher education, similar to the K-12 reforms spurred by the report, “A Nation at Risk,” during the 1980s.
“Higher education got a pass for the last 20 years,” said Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development. “There are many opportunities to do better.”
On enrollment and participation issues, 19 states declined on every indicator — including enrollments of 18- to 24-year-olds in college and the likelihood that ninth-graders will enroll in college within four years. Only eight states made substantial progress.
Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana had the lowest scores on college participation, each with grades of D. Twenty-one other states earned a C. The report gave A’s to 12 states, including California, Maryland, New Jersey and New Mexico.
Despite these negative findings, the report found progress among states in the preparation of K-12 students for higher education. Several states had more students taking algebra by eighth grade, a key goal when promoting readiness for college, while many also made increases in proficient and advanced scores on standardized tests.
Yet progress there means little if students cannot afford higher education. Citing The Education Trust’s own research, Haycock said high-achieving poor students are no more likely to go to college than low-achieving affluent youth.
“It isn’t just about the students,” she said, citing other factors affecting higher education enrollment and achievement.
Despite these trends, there are pockets of success in promoting access and achievement. In Tennessee, the report notes, 35 percent of minority youth ages 18 to 24 attend college, compared with only 23 percent a decade ago.
Once students reach higher education, many are succeeding, the report card shows. Overall, 37 states have improved in graduation rates and attainment of certificates or other degrees. Georgia and Louisiana posted some of the largest gains in the number of degrees or certificates awarded for every 100 students who enrolled in college.
By comparison, only four states made no progress in graduation rates and related issues.
In her analysis, Haycock also cited the work of individual institutions such as Elizabeth City State University, a Black college in North Carolina. About 53 percent of students at the university graduate within six years, she said. Yet comparable colleges with similar profiles have graduation rates of only about 30 percent.
“We clearly can do better in graduation rates because some institutions clearly are doing better,” she said. Other North Carolina institutions also have made recent gains in graduation rates, which she attributed in part to the state’s new policy to publish such completion rates.
The report and more extensive state profiles on issues for low-income students are available on the center’s Web site, <www.highereducation.org>.
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