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Losing Ground in Higher Education is Unacceptable

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League


It’s fall, and, as usual, Saturdays in most parts of the land are filled with the pageantry of college football -- the thunderous cheers, or groans, arising from the stadium sandwiched between the tailgating parties before the game and the more sustained partying after the game.

It’s a pity that so many young people are missing out on the fun.
Actually, the great pity is that so many young people are missing out on the chance to get a college education -- because they don’t have the funds to go to college at all.
If a sound elementary and secondary education is the gateway to America’s economic and social mainstream, then higher education is the surefire path to upward mobility. A recent report of the U.S. Census Bureau showed with fresh data the direct correlation between levels of education and lifetime earnings: High School dropouts earn less over their lifetimes than high school graduates, who, in turn, earn less than college graduates.
But America’s poorer students are being priced out of going on to higher education even at the nation’s public four-year colleges and universities, which were originally established to make college affordable to families with modest incomes.
That’s the bottom line of an alarming report released earlier this year by the educational think tank, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. It’s title is “Losing Ground: A national status report on the affordability of American higher education.”Among its findings was the fact that, on average, poor families spent 25 percent of their annual income for their children to attend four-year public colleges in 2000. That was nearly double the 13 percent of annual income poor families spent in 1980. The comparable figures for middle-class families were 7 percent, versus 4 percent. The percentage of income spent by the wealthiest families did not change; it remained at 2 percent of income.
The report determined that while the average amount states spent on higher education per student increased by 13 percent during the two decades, to $6,747, state colleges and universities increased their tuition and fees by 107 percent, to $3,512.
Patrick M. Callan, the center’s president, said upon the report’s release, “All these trends are unhealthy for the future of educational opportunity in this country. If we continue at this pace for the next 10 to 20 years, we’ll choke off a lot of opportunity.”
His charge was seconded by another recent report by economists Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schiapiro. They determined that 25 percent of high-achieving students from poor families don’t go to college, compared to 5 percent of those from wealthy families.
One of America’s noblest attributes -- indeed, one that sets us apart from every other industrialized nation on earth, is our historic commitment to make higher education widely accessible and affordable. But the alarming fact is that lowly economic status is increasingly becoming a barrier to college, a trend that is almost certainly being exacerbated by the current economic downturn, which has recorded the elimination of more than 2 million jobs since early 2001.
Of course, higher education isn’t for everyone. But it’s a colossal waste of human potential to let cost bar anyone from pursuing it.
State educators and politicians have a duty, even in this time of tremendous strain on state budgets, to insure that public universities continue their original mission: to make higher education available to motivated young people regardless of their economic status.
The acute financial pressure on public colleges and universities has to be relieved. For starters, Washington should liberalize the Pell Grant program so that federal tuition assistance rises in sync with college costs. And state legislators should follow suit by making certain state subsidies keep pace as well so that higher education isn’t priced out of reach for working class and poor families. Their future -- and America’s -- depends on it.

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