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30 Years In: The Evolving Federal Role in Higher Education

Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., says that while federal aid has helped provide support for the economically disadvantaged, the programs remain underfunded.Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., says that while federal aid has helped provide support for the economically disadvantaged, the programs remain underfunded.

Despite dramatic tuition increases over the past 30 years, federal data reveals that more low-income students are enrolling in post-secondary education. While advocates say much work remains to be done on access and affordability, they note one reason for the enrollment increase has been the steady availability of federal financial aid.

“We’ve seen the evolution of the Pell Grant create opportunity for low-income students,” says Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

Though federal aid has provided much needed support to the economically disadvantaged, Pell and other programs have become hard-pressed to keep up with tuition increases and make up for declines in state aid. “The minus is that these programs are still underfunded,” notes Cooper.

Such are the successes and continuing challenges in federal policy with regards to access to higher education during the past three decades, and, now, a time in which more young adults are seeking a post-secondary education but are concerned about its affordability.

Back in 1984, about one-third of low-income students who completed high school enrolled in college. By 2011, that rate rose to more than half of low-income graduates every year, according to “The Condition of Education,” the U.S. Department of Education’s annual compilation of education data. However, low-income high school graduates are enrolling in college at rates substantially below the enrollment rate for high-income students, of whom more than four of every five enrolled in college immediately after high school in 2011.

In response to these trends, policymakers in Congress and the White House have attempted with varied success to promote initiatives to increase access and affordability for all youth, including students of color. Here is a look at the state of some of the key issues that lawmakers on Capitol Hill have grappled with in the past 30 years:

Pell Grants

In 2007, Pell Grants were funded at $13 billion. Between 2007 and 2011, federal support tripled to more than $41 billion, Education Department data shows. The number of new awards during that time nearly doubled to 9 million, and the average new award jumped by nearly 50 percent to $3,800.

Despite these increases, Pell has failed to keep up with rising tuition. According to the American Council on Education, in the early 1980s, a Pell Grant covered nearly the entire cost of a public two-year college and 77 percent of costs for a public four-year college. By 2011, grants covered just 62 percent and 36 percent of costs, respectively.

Though Congress has continued to increase the maximum amount of the grant, Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), notes that “the Pell Grant has less and less buying power.”

The issue is particularly relevant for students of color, as 60 percent of African-American and half of Hispanic undergraduates rely on Pell Grants to attend school, reports CLASP, via the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

Ninety percent of Pell recipients also take out student loans, which themselves have undergone major changes.

Student loans

As grants cover a smaller share of college costs, low- and middle-income students are increasingly relying on loans. This trend began in the 1980s, advocates say, when Pell funding stagnated amid rising college costs. By 2012, students graduated college with average loan debt of $29,400, according to TICAS. More students are also relying on costly private loans and federal loans.

Though more grant funding could help control this growth, experts are touting new methods of loan repayment.

The federal government and consumer groups want more students to use income-based repayment options, in which borrowers pay back their loans based on their salaries after graduation.

“If you need to borrow to get through school, federal loans are the safest way to borrow,” TICAS President Lauren Asher said in a statement. But income-based repayment plans “can help keep federal loan payments manageable.”

Minority-serving institutions

The outlook for minority-serving colleges and universities has changed significantly over the past three decades. In 1993, Congress created the first dedicated Education Department funding program for Hispanic-serving institutions. “This was a landmark in the history of our organization,” Flores says, noting that the program spurred investment and garnered attention from other federal agencies.

Although it began with $12 million in 1995, the Education Department’s HSI program now receives $95 million per year. Buoyed by other federal investments, Hispanic-serving colleges now receive about $250 million per year in federal funding when including the HSI program, an HSI STEM initiative and agriculture-related programs, Flores notes.

The ED program has “given us visibility in the policy world,” says Flores.

The Education Department’s program for historically Black colleges and universities, which dates back to 1965, also has continued to grow in recent years, from $185 million in 2001 to $303 million by 2013. Congress has also expanded funding for small programs for predominantly Black colleges and tribal colleges, helping these institutions launch new programs and services.

College access

To complement the federal TRIO programs serving disadvantaged youth, in 1998 Congress enacted GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), to provide academic and early college awareness services to disadvantaged youth from middle school through college. Now funded at $286 million, the program has both state and local partnership grants to serve cohorts of middle school students, following them through their college search and application process and into post-secondary education.

But policymakers have been focusing more attention on access and success in college. President Obama’s goal of having the U.S. rank first in the world in producing the highest percentage of college graduates has resulted in more attention on retention and graduation once students enter college.

Given their financial needs, however, access remains a key concern for low- and middle-income students, Cooper says. Many rely on low-cost institutions of varying quality. “There’s definitely been a shift from access to success,” Cooper tells Diverse. “But we have to focus on both and not just one or the other.”


No discussion of the federal role in higher education is complete without citing the increasingly partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. As the fall 2013 government shutdown shows, the gridlock remains a stumbling block to new federal action in higher education.

Higher education experts note that divided government is not new, as there are many examples over the past 30 years of one party controlling the White House and another party leading one or both houses of Congress. But partisanship has escalated to such a degree that even simple pieces of legislation are not being approved.

“Gridlock has stalled progress and that is unfortunate,” notes Cooper. Lawmakers have fallen far behind in reviewing and updating key federal laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act.

Yet members of both parties remain concerned about rising college costs and many want to promote access to some type of post-high school study to help youth succeed in today’s job market. There is still hope, Cooper says, that “we can commit ourselves to college access and success.”

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