Col­lege shouldn’t be a lux­ury

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - RON­ALD BROWNSTEIN Ron­ald Brownstein is a se­nior writer at the Na­tional Jour­nal. rbrown­stein@na­tion­aljour­nal.com

When Pres­i­dent John­son signed the land­mark Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Act in Novem­ber 1965, the set­ting he chose spoke as loudly as his words. John­son inked the bill at his alma mater, South­west Texas State Teach­ers Col­lege (now Texas State Univer­sity), be­hind a desk he had used while work­ing for the school to help pay his way. “I want you to go back,” he told his au­di­ence, “and say to your chil­dren, and to your grand­chil­dren … that we have opened the road … and we ex­pect them to travel it.”

Nearly 50 years later, the na­tion has ad­vanced to­ward John­son’s vi­sion of de­moc­ra­tiz­ing ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion. In 1970, 46% of high school grad­u­ates from fam­i­lies in the bot­tom quar­ter of the in­come scale pro­ceeded di­rectly to col­lege; now 62% do. The share of African Amer­i­cans aged 25 to 29 hold­ing col­lege de­grees is about three times larger now than in the early 1970s; Lati­nos have gained nearly as much.

But other trends are more dis­cour­ag­ing. With tu­ition steadily ris­ing, debt from stu­dent loans has sky­rock­eted. African Amer­i­can, Latino and low-in­come stu­dents who start col­lege re­main much less likely to fin­ish than stu­dents from white or af­flu­ent fam­i­lies. One rea­son, as the Georgetown Cen­ter on Ed­u­ca­tion and the Work­force has doc­u­mented, is that most African Amer­i­can and Latino stu­dents are chan­neled into the public col­leges with the least re­sources, while the most se­lec­tive schools that spend sig­nif­i­cantly more per stu­dent re­main as pre­pon­der­antly white as two decades ago.

Higher ed­u­ca­tion stands in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion as the great es­ca­la­tor for up­ward mo­bil­ity. But our col­leges and univer­si­ties now do as much to strat­ify as to dis­lodge priv­i­lege.

Washington can con­front this cor­ro­sive dy­namic as Congress be­gins reau­tho­riz­ing the high­ere­d­u­ca­tion law, which gov­erns fed­eral as­sis­tance to col­leges and stu­dents. One rea­son for op­ti­mism is that La­mar Alexan­der, the Ten­nessee Repub­li­can and for­mer Ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary who chairs the Se­nate Health, Ed­u­ca­tion, La­bor and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee, and rank­ing Demo­crat Patty Mur­ray of Washington state have com­mit­ted to pro­duc­ing a bi­par­ti­san bill this fall. They fol­lowed a sim­i­larly col­lab­o­ra­tive process this spring to break a dead­lock that dated back to Ge­orge W. Bush’s pres­i­dency over restruc­tur­ing the K–12 school-test­ing and ac­count­abil­ity regime es­tab­lished by the No Child Left Be­hind law. Their bill wasn’t per­fect, but it passed the com­mit­tee on a rare unan­i­mous vote, and it of­fers the frame­work for a gen­uine bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus when it reaches the Se­nate floor.

Alexan­der and Mur­ray have iden­ti­fied some en­cour­ag­ing pri­or­i­ties, in­clud­ing ad­dress­ing af­ford­abil­ity, stream­lin­ing the com­plex fed­eral fi­nan­cial-aid form, re­think­ing the way univer­si­ties are ac­cred­ited (to en­cour­age more in­no­va­tion), sim­pli­fy­ing the re­pay­ment op­tion for stu­dent loans and com­bat­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence on cam­pus.

Those are all wor­thy goals. But Congress needs to also ex­am­ine the un­der­ly­ing forces that are pro­duc­ing a two-track sys­tem that in­creas­ingly de­votes the most re­sources to ed­u­cat­ing the chil­dren who al­ready start life with the great­est ad­van­tages. As Un­der­sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Ted Mitchell said re­cently, “Col­lege, the ticket to the mid­dle class, must not be­come a lux­ury good.”

Three is­sues are es­pe­cially ur­gent. One is find­ing fed­eral car­rots and sticks to dis­cour­age states from dis­in­vest­ing in public col­leges and univer­si­ties, which most stu­dents at­tend. From 2001 to 2012, the share of ed­u­ca­tional costs cov­ered by state ap­pro­pri­a­tions at public col­leges and univer­si­ties dropped from 68% to 44%. That has shifted costs partly to Washington, through higher Pell Grants, but mostly to par­ents and stu­dents: Although the max­i­mum Pell Grant has more than dou­bled since 1995, it now cov­ers a smaller share of costs at public univer­si­ties than it did then. Washington can’t keep pour­ing more dol­lars into the high­ere­d­u­ca­tion bucket if states are si­phon­ing them from be­low.

Congress needs to look at the en­dow­ment gap. Fed­eral law al­lows univer­sity en­dow­ments to ap­pre­ci­ate tax-free. As the Nexus Re­search and Pol­icy Cen­ter cal­cu­lated, that pro­vides fed­eral sub­si­dies to high-en­dow­ment pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions that dwarf the fed­eral dol­lars given to public univer­si­ties in the same state: On a per-stu­dent ba­sis, for ex­am­ple, Har­vard re­ceives nearly five times as much in tax breaks as Mas­sachusetts spends at its flag­ship public univer­sity. Nexus rec­om­mends tax­ing the rich­est en­dow­ments to bol­ster fund­ing for in­sti­tu­tions serv­ing more low-in­come stu­dents, but al­low­ing rich schools to off­set the tax by ex­pand­ing their own need-based schol­ar­ships.

Fi­nally, Congress should ex­am­ine the online-learn­ing revo­lu­tion. Done right, online cour­ses can ex­pand ac­cess and re­strain costs. Done wrong, they can rel­e­gate lower-in­come kids to time only with a screen, re­serv­ing in-per­son in­struc­tion for the more af­flu­ent.

Across all these is­sues, the guid­ing prin­ci­ple should be rein­vig­o­rat­ing John­son’s vi­sion of a higher-ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that op­er­ates to re­ward tal­ent rather than re­in­force priv­i­lege.

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