Public Good of Private Colleges
In my home state of Georgia, state funding for higher education took a huge hit in 2004, and prospects are not yet clear for this year. In Washington, the Higher Education Re-Authorization Act is once again up for debate, having failed to be renewed by the 108th Congress.
Support for higher education in this country is critically important. Our nation has a growing student population that is both more diverse and less able to pay for college. Concern about college access and affordability threatens to unravel the American social compact that historically has ensured greater educational mobility from one generation to the next.
Private colleges are vital to the continuation of this compact. I believe the public and our elected officials have been distracted by "sticker shock," or the "list price" of some of our most expensive private institutions. What they don't realize is that virtually no low-income or middle-class family in America pays that price, thanks to financial aid. In fact, 84 percent of students at private institutions pay less than the published tuition, room and board.
Unfortunately, because they aren't aware of the impact of financial aid, some families won't even consider private colleges for their children. It's also unfortunate that legislators often ignore the impressive public service record of independent colleges and universities.
It's time to "introduce" American families to the reality that private colleges and universities are accessible, affordable, and offer strong academic programs that enable students to be successful.
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Many variables impact the total cost of college in addition to tuition. The time it takes a student to graduate is a key consideration. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, 79 percent of graduates at private four-year institutions complete their degrees in four years or less, compared to 49 percent of students at public four-year institutions. This means students at private colleges and universities avoid paying tuition for additional semesters of study and can begin their careers earlier.
It is important for American families and decision makers to realize that private colleges are part of one of the greatest transfers of private wealth in U.S. history, as the aging baby-boomer population increases support of its alma maters. Private colleges have turned much of this generosity into aid for students. In 2003-04 alone, they dipped into college accounts to provide $12.3 billion in student aid. Use of these resources has meant that students attending private colleges and universities have actually seen their average, inflation-adjusted out-of-pocket cost decline over the past decade.
Politicians and journalists often fail to consider the contribution independent institutions make to the educational vitality of the nation, adhering instead to the hackneyed "rich, elite, and privileged" misperception. Consequently, myth has become reality.
In an editorial this past spring, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution opposed the HOPE scholarship for Georgia students attending private colleges part-time. Quoting from the editorial, "The purpose of HOPE was to increase the access of Georgia students to higher education. There's no evidence that the private tuition subsidies from HOPE have benefited student access."
The assumption in the editorial was that public colleges and universities educate a disproportionate number of children from low-income families and private colleges and universities are only for the wealthy. This is simply not so. Sixteen percent of the students attending either public or private institutions come from families with incomes of less than $25,000.
Another faulty assumption is that public institutions are the only places where minority students enroll--also untrue. Forty percent of the students attending private institutions in Georgia are minorities. Nationwide, the proportion of minority students at private colleges and universities is 24 percent, while the percentage at four-year state institutions is 25 percent.
Politicians should look for ways to include the independent sector in short- and long-term blueprints for higher education. Federal and state legislators need to realize that taxpayers can save money and provide greater access to higher education if they include private institutions, which would increase overall capacity and absorb some of the expected growth in student demand.
Consider Georgia, where the Tuition Equalization Grant for students attending private institutions could be indexed to subsidies for students at state universities. After all, it costs the state approximately $8,200 to fund a student at a state university--without capital expenditures, but only $900 with all the capital expenditures borne by the private sector. What better way to leverage precious state higher education funds?
Mary Brown Bullock is the president of Agnes Scott College (Ga.)
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