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Access Matters

Ensuring that preserving access to higher education becomes part of a national dialogue
University Business, Apr 2009

IN MAY 1994, ENRIQUETA CORTEZ became the first Hispanic woman in Texas to earn a PhD in physical chemistry. Just a decade earlier, no one could have foreseen her achievement. As a high school student in the Rio Grande Valley, Enriqueta followed the cotton crop more than the school football team. She changed schools numerous times, as her family moved frequently in search of work. Her parents relied on her financial contribution, and they expected that she would forgo college to continue helping them and her 12 siblings. 

Despite the challenges of migrant life, Enriqueta graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. She convinced her family to allow her to pursue a college education, and she enrolled at St. Edward’s University (Texas) as part of the 1983 cohort of 102 students in the university’s College Assistance Migrant Program. For the past 37 years, that program has provided full tuition, room, board, and support services for sons and daughters of migrant farm workers. In 1988, she completed her BS in chemistry and mathematics.

University leaders will face hard choices that imperil American ideals about higher education access.

There are millions of stories like Enriqueta’s and many waiting to be told, as high school students across the country make plans for entering college. What will happen to these students as colleges and universities struggle with the most serious financial disruption since the Great Depression? Shrunken endowments, budget cuts, layoffs, downsizing, and postponement of capital projects headline today’s news. And while resources decline, needs are soaring.

As institutional leaders examine the bottom line, there is little doubt they will face hard choices that imperil American ideals about access to higher education. Preserving access is about preserving the country’s quality of life and educating the workforce of the 21st century. College and university leaders can find a solution only if they join forces with government to secure resources adequate to the task. President Barack Obama offered hope for such an alliance in his February 24th speech to Congress, in which he declared that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

The current economic crisis cuts across class lines. As middle-class families have watched their retirement accounts lose 30 to 40 percent of their value, they have lost the financial confidence that characterized the last two decades. Even if they have jobs, they no longer have home equity and other forms of easy credit with which to pay tuition. Economically disadvantaged families have been hit even harder, increasing the amount of financial aid they need. As jobless rates increase, the ranks of families needing financial aid will swell, a phenomenon that will probably exist for several years. Meanwhile, student debt will accelerate.

To address the problem, some university presidents have promised to increase financial aid, but despite good intentions, resources are likely to be insufficient. And while the increase in Pell Grants to $5,350 in 2009 and $5,550 in 2010 is encouraging, the grants are a minor element in the total cost of college attendance.

These immediate problems are merely a preview of what’s to come. The long-term situation will be even more complex. Students in need of financial aid will constitute larger percentages of college populations as the mid-century approaches. And the gap between wage and tuition increases is more likely to grow than to diminish.

To make the case for public policies that expand financial aid and access to higher education, universities must shift the argument beyond equal opportunity. Even though equal opportunity is an obvious issue in financial aid policy, historically it has not been compelling enough to fully address the problems. A successful case must add self-serving motivations, the kind that economists suggest are critical to attracting support for public policies. Two such motivations come to mind. One concerns continuing institutional mission, the other, securing the economic vitality of the country.

The families of future students will be less able to pay the full costs of attending college.

Most American colleges and universities are committed to access in their institutional mission. More than 80 percent of full-time students at private colleges and universities receive financial aid. At public universities, the number is about 70 percent. Some institutions can trace this obligation to the religious beliefs and values that lie at the core of their existence. But all institutions, whether public or private, serve society by developing leaders and responsible citizens for future generations. This is why they were created, and they cannot fulfill their purpose unless their doors are open to all students of ability.

Further, colleges and universities need student populations that are socially, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse. The education of future leaders and citizens requires exposure to the views and experiences of the many groups that make up society both in the classroom and in co-curricular life. Colleges and universities cannot accomplish the goals for which they were founded without finding a way to finance higher education for all strata of society.

Add to this another self-serving motivation. The United States cannot maintain its global economic position without marshalling all of its potential talent in the competition with China, India, the European Union, and other nations that will define the world economy in the 21st century. States such as Texas, where Enriqueta worked the fields and attended college, have already determined that they are destined for economic decline unless they significantly expand the number of college graduates available for the workforce needed in 2050.

How then can colleges and universities find the resources to sustain them through the current downturn? How can they maintain the access levels to higher education that are critical to the country’s economic future?

Certainly, students should be expected to contribute to the cost of their education. But it is clear that the families of future students will be less able to pay the full costs of attending college. And as large endowments recover in five to ten years, they will still not reach support levels to match the demand for financial aid. Currently, the great majority of colleges and universities don’t have endowments worthy of the name.

Colleges and universities must begin to forge a new alliance with government at both the state and federal levels. Higher education can plant the seed for such an alliance by investing in efforts to educate the public and government officials about the nature and breadth of the financial aid problem and its potential impact on America’s fortunes.

Equally important, all constituencies in higher education must make a genuine attempt to reduce operating costs without sacrificing educational quality. Reducing costs is an essential good-faith effort to win the support of political officials and the American public.

University leaders must help elevate higher education policy to the same level as health care, Social Security, and defense, for it is just as essential to the nation’s future. Only when getting a college education becomes as natural as progressing through elementary and high school—when universities and government ensure access for all qualified students—can higher education finally reap its full harvest.

George Martin is president of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and the vice chair for programs on the Council of Independent Colleges’ board of directors.