While many land-grant flagships strive to keep costs low for students, they have not been as successful in yielding high graduation rates, and, as a result, many students—including high numbers of Blacks and Latinos—fall through the cracks.
Dr. José Cruz, the vice president for higher education, policy and practice at the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that pushes high academic achievement and seeks to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps—especially among minority students from pre-kindergarten to college—says that most of the nation’s land-grant institutions have neglected their mission to educate diverse populations in favor of recruiting high-achieving students from relatively wealthy families who can help the schools climb in national rankings.
“The main challenge is associated with how flagships make decisions about how to invest their financial aid dollars,” says Cruz. He points out that, from 2003 to 2007, public research universities increased the amount of aid to students whose parents make at least $115,000 a year by 28 percent. He adds that these schools routinely award as much in financial aid to students whose parents make more than $80,000 a year as to those whose parents make less than $54,000 a year.
“We are using the data to drive policy discussions at all levels,” says Cruz, who organized a briefing on Capitol Hill in July to talk with congressional leaders about the importance of safeguarding the Pell Grant and other federally supported financial aid programs. The Pell Grant program faces serious threats in budget negotiations for fiscal year 2012. The U.S. Senate recently rejected a move by the House of Representatives to slash support for the program, yet it remains unclear how the program ultimately will fare once the Senate drafts its budget.
Dr. F. King Alexander, president of California State University, Long Beach, was at the congressional briefing. This school and California State University, Fullerton, were two of the five institutions applauded in an Education Trust report released in June titled “Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students.” They were recognized for being the most affordable and accessible institutions with high graduation rates. The other three schools are the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, City University of New York Queens College and City University of New York Baruch College.
At CSULB, Alexander says that the challenge to remain accessible and to graduate students within the traditional six years has proved somewhat difficult for many public institutions, particularly when state legislatures have authorized drastic cutbacks to higher education.
“We are spending 50 percent less today than we were in 1980,” says Alexander, whose student population at CSULB is approximately 35,000 students, making it the 25th largest university in the United States. “If the federal government does not stop states from abandoning their commitments to education, no institutions will qualify based on the Education Trust’s guidelines. It’s shocking that five made it.” CSULB officials have created a bold initiative called Project Green Light. Two full-time academic advisors track down students who drop out of CSULB during their junior and senior years and provide them with a pathway to re-enroll and graduate in a timely fashion.
“We’ve found that most did not know that they were that close to graduating,” says Alexander, who adds that the initiative has led to approximately 80 additional students re-enrolling at CSULB and graduating each year. “We reel them back in. We say, ‘Here are the three courses you need. We will help you sign up for them, and we will help you graduate.’ We not only want to provide access, but we’re focused on completion.” Other land-grant institutions face similar challenges with graduating students.
“We struggle and invest in this issue every day,” says Graeme Baxter, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of the District of Columbia, one of only a handful of urban land-grant institutions in the nation. “Many of our students historically lead home lives that make it extremely difficult for them to complete their education. They may stop in and stop out.” Tuition at the school is about $3,000 for D.C. residents.
“UDC is maximally accessible,” says Baxter. “Throughout our entire history we have served the underrepresented by having open enrollment and extremely low tuition. I don’t know how much more accessible we can be.”
At Delaware State University, a public historically Black college and university, college officials say about 70 percent of the student population receives financial aid, but athletic and academic scholarships have increased the number of students receiving aid (many of whom are first-generation and low-income students) to about 90 percent.
“We’ve really kept tuition reasonably affordable. We think Delaware State University is a good buy,” says Lynn Iocono, director of financial aid. In-state students pay $7,000 a year while out-of-state students pay about $15,000 to attend Delaware State.
An anonymous $6 million gift to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has allowed college officials to launch a program that provides financial assistance to students who come from a family of four that makes $24,000 a year or less. The program is in its second year. A survey of students on campus revealed that 900 qualified for assistance. So far, college officials have been able to support about 40 students with varying forms of funding.
“We are an institution committed to diversity, inclusiveness and access,” says Dr. David Perrin, provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In a report released in 2010 titled “Opportunity Adrift: Our Flagship Universities Are Straying from Their Public Mission,” and also in the recent “Priced Out ” report, the Education Trust argues that state universities are failing in their mission to provide an affordable education to middle- and low-income families, with minority students feeling the impact the most.
“It’s almost as if some of America’s best public colleges have forgotten that they are, in fact, public,” says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.
“Priced Out” finds that just five of the nation’s nearly 1,200 four-year colleges and universities have student bodies that are at least 30 percent low-income and offer low-income students a chance at an affordable bachelor’s degree.
Dr. Wendell Hall, director of student success and research at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, says that the two reports released by the Education Trust do not tell the entire story.
“I think there are some contextual factors missing,” he says, adding that one of the criteria noted in Education Trust’s “Priced Out” report is graduation rates, an unreliable source of data he says because only first-year students—not transfer and part-time students—are counted in graduation rates among colleges and universities. “Overall, all universities can do better, but some of the issues raised in the report are higher education trends in general and do not necessarily point out what’s happening at the majority of [APLU] institutions.”
The reports, which are being discussed on campuses nationwide, have raised questions about the future of land-grant universities, particularly in an age where private and for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix are vying for low-income students. The overall debate about the future of land-grant universities is likely to continue. At a conference in June titled “The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities,” scholars debated the role that these institutions play in developing society. The conference was held at Pennsylvania State University as the first in a series of nationwide events leading up to the 150th anniversary in 2012 of the Morrill Land Grant College Act.
“Land-grant institutions’ historical development has been bumpy and contentious at times,” says Dr. Roger Williams, co-chairman of the conference and executive director of Penn State’s alumni association.
“The conditions and circumstances of land-grant universities have changed dramatically and will continue to change. Our essential mission remains intact—teaching, research and outreach/public service—and those, too, will continue to evolve. But land-grant universities will remain fundamentally oriented to serving our respective publics and improving the human condition. That’s what our DNA is.”