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U.S. Makes Modest Progress in College Affordability and Accessibility

College accessibility has improved modestly over the last decade as the proportion of 18 to 24 years enrolled in college has risen from 39 percent to 42 percent since 1997. 

But despite tepid gains in college accessibility, significant disparities still exist in higher education performance by race, income and state, and these gaps pose serious threats to the nation’s global competitiveness, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education announced today in their biennial assessment, Measuring Up: the 2008 National Report Card.

The 2008 report card, like its four previous editions, evaluates the progress of all 50 states in providing citizens with education and training from high school through the baccalaureate degree. State performance is evaluated on six criteria: how well students are prepared for college, participation in terms of how many students have access to opportunities for higher education, affordability, completion, benefits and learning.

Disparities in college access are closely tied to race and income, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. While college attendance has increased for all groups over the past three decades, gaps in enrollment among racial groups have not diminished, he said.  Also, the recent downturn in the nation’s economy could force a reversal in terms of the progress made in college accessibility over the last 10 years, Callan adds.

“If we respond to this recession the way we have done to others, placing most of the [financial] burden on students and families, when the  students who most need to get in the system are those who can least afford it, we will set ourselves back quite a ways,” Callan said during a conference call earlier this week.

According to College Board, a non-profit organization, the average tuition and fees for in-state students at four-year public colleges and universities climbed 6.4 percent to $6,585, according to the organization’s annual report on tuition and student aid, while financial aid only increased by 5.5 percent.

Students who don’t believe that they can afford college, said Callan, are less likely to finish high school or engage in rigorous coursework.

Instead of tuition increases, the report recommends that states establish policies for financial aid and tuition that balance the financial burden of higher education among states, the institution, families and students to ensure that educational opportunity is protected.

Beyond that, however, the report reveals that many more high school students will never enter college as graduation rates have decreased for all racial and ethnic groups over the past two decades. The national, four-year high school graduation rate was 77.5 percent. The rate for Black students was 69.1 percent, while a little more than 70 percent of Hispanics graduated. 

 Among high school graduates, 73 percent of Whites, 56 percent of Blacks and 58 percent of Hispanics typically enroll in college in the fall following high school graduation, the report shows.

“Family wealth and income, race and ethnicity, and geography play too great a role in determining which Americans receive a high school education that prepares them for college, which ones enroll in college, and which ones complete certificate or degree programs,” James B. Hunt Jr., chairman of the National Center’s Board of Directors, states in the report. 

Topping the list with the most prepared high school students in the nation, according to the report, are Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont.

When disaggregated by race, the study shows that Illinois, Michigan and New York graduate 80 percent of all Black students from high school, while more than 90 percent of White students graduated.

North Carolina, home of the third largest university system in the country, graduates 92 percent of White high school students, but only 56 percent of its Hispanic students.

In terms of family income, 91 percent of high school students from families in the highest income group – above $100,000 annually – enroll in college. Enrollment rates for students from middle-income families of $50,001 to $100,000 is 78 percent; and for those in the lowest income group – less than $20,000 annually – the rate is 52 percent, according to the report.

For students who do enroll in college, rates of completion of certificate, associate and baccalaureate programs are poor and have improved only slightly. These low college completion rates are depriving the nation of college-educated and trained workers needed to keep the American workforce globally competitive, the report states.   

In college completion, the U.S. ranks 15th among 29 countries compared in the study, the report shows. Korea leads industrialized countries with 53 percent of their 18-24 year-old population enrolled in college.

Roughly 60 percent of White students in the U.S. complete their bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling in college. In contrast 47 percent of Hispanic students, 41 percent of Blacks and 39 percent of Native American students complete a bachelor’s degree within six years.

College tuition continues to outpace family income and the price of other necessities. The erosion of college affordability has been exacerbated not only by increased tuition but also by relative flat or declining family incomes, the report shows. 

The financial burden of paying for college has increased substantially, particularly for low and middle income families. Even when scholarships and grants are taken into account, the report states. Students who enroll in college are taking on more debt to maintain their college access. To cope with the rising cost, more students are borrowing more money. Over the last decade student borrowing has more than doubled, growing from $41 billion in total dollars loaned in 1997 to 85 billion in 2008.

Measuring Up ranks California as the best state in terms of college affordability and access. Poor and working-class families there must devote 40 percent of their income, even after aid, to pay for costs at public four-year colleges. The remaining 49 states were deemed unaffordable due to their inability to increase the affordability of college over time.  

The core message of Measuring Up 2008, says Hunt, is that despite historical successes in higher education, performance is not commensurate with the current needs of society and the economy.

“Our nation and our states can do better,” Hunt insists. “As we have done many times in this nation’s history, we must reach higher. We must educate more young people and adults so that more Americans have the college-level knowledge and skills they need to succeed.”

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