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No-Brainer | The Nation

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The biggest losers in this market-driven higher-education world are students from low-income families. That's no surprise, since equity has never been a concern of the market-minded. What's startling, though, is the magnitude of the impact of family income on educational opportunity.

About the Author

David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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At elite universities, a study by the Century Foundation finds, almost three-quarters of the students come from the top quartile of socioeconomic status; fewer than 10 percent come from the bottom half. Similarly gross disparities are also evident in less selective schools. Fewer than half of college-qualified high school graduates from families with incomes below $25,000 enroll in four-year colleges, a 2003 Congressional committee report concludes, and nearly a quarter of them never pursue any higher education. By contrast, five out of every six students whose families earn more than $75,000 enroll in a four-year institution, and just 4 percent never go beyond high school. Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, neatly summed up the situation in a Los Angeles Times article: "Smart poor kids go to college at the same rate as stupid rich kids."

Low-income students are also much slower, and less likely, to graduate than their well-off peers. Forty-one percent of undergraduates whose family income is in the top quartile get degrees within five years, reports Frank Newman in his forthcoming book The Future of Higher Education, but only one-seventh as many from the bottom quartile--6.1 percent--graduate in the same time period. While federal scholarship and loan programs are intended to close this gap, convoluted eligibility rules discourage students from applying. And with a ceiling of $4,050 for Pell Grants, this aid doesn't begin to match the escalating cost of going to college. The latest College Board report concludes that financial aid hasn't kept pace with tuition increases.

In short, public higher education is no longer an engine of opportunity. Quite the opposite--it generates inequality. The upcoming review of the Higher Education Act provides an apt occasion for a national conversation on college affordability and access, but that's not what the GOP intends. In the mind of George Bush, the "bully pulpit" is a pulpit for bullying.

The outlines of a smarter and fairer federal policy are readily sketched. Government's first priority should be to put a thumb on the equity side of the scale in order to narrow the access gap. This doesn't have to cost billions of dollars. "It may be sufficient," argue economists David Ellwood and Thomas Kane, "simply to target [financial] aid more effectively."

Public universities can do their part by spending less on the status wars--the competition for recognition in the U.S. News & World Report rankings that leads schools to woo applicants with resort-quality, multimillion-dollar recreation centers and residence halls. States can help by phasing out their expensive merit-based scholarships. The principle is simple: Families that can afford to pay for their children's education should foot the bill. But the spotlight must be on Washington. As David Breneman points out, "Only the federal government has the incentive and the resources to underwrite the access agenda."

Students from low-income families are reluctant to borrow money, because they're uncertain how they'll fare in college, and they're also most likely to drop out of school. That's why it makes sense to offer them scholarships rather than loans--a policy just adopted by the University of North Carolina--at least during the first two years of their college education. Once they make it past that hurdle, they can finance the rest of their schooling with loans, ideally keyed to likely future earnings. And simplifying the Kafkaesque eligibility rules for federal aid would help matters as well.

Good policy entails more than jiggling with scholarship and loan formulas. Schools like the University of Texas at El Paso and New York City's LaGuardia Community College have done remarkably well in recruiting and holding on to low-income students. These schools have adopted initiatives that monitor students' progress, helping them to select majors, catching them before they fail and giving them the mentoring they need. For his part, Thomas Kane has gone beyond analyzing the data to becoming directly involved in the lives of students. A few years back he launched College Opportunity and Career Help (COACH), a Boston-area program that gives low-income high school students the kind of counseling that well-to-do families take for granted. Cloning such initiatives would be a wise social investment. These programs cost money, though, and to pay for them Washington would have to roll back the GOP tax cuts.

"Part of the agenda behind this discussion of accountability," Representative Robert Andrews, a Democrat on John Boehner's education subcommittee, points out, "is to distract attention away from the fact that [the Bush Administration] can't afford significant increases in student aid because they've already given the money away in tax cuts." Such pseudo-populism is nothing new--it's the underpinning of compassionate conservatism--but the White House higher-education agenda goes beyond simple austerity. What's being pitched as a lecture delivered on behalf of overburdened parents to irresponsible university administrators--get your budgets under control, get your students out the door--is a contrivance for undermining the chances of poor students, and making things harder for the middle class as well. It's hard to imagine a higher-education policy less compassionate than that.

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