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A Crisis of Affordability: How Our Public Colleges Are Turning into Gated Communities for the Wealthy

Attending a four-year public college may soon be out of reach for all but the wealthiest. This is the greatest assault yet to the American dream.

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Not surprisingly, hardest hit by the crisis are those who can least afford college to begin with, low-income families for whom the financial burden of education has increased fastest. According to "Measuring Up 2008," the lower-middle class and lowest income groups have seen the largest increases in percentages of income needed to pay college costs -- more than three to four times the increases experienced by higher income groups.

Even as access to college is dwindling, opinion polls indicate that more Americans believe a college education is essential to a successful, productive life, and that those without a degree will be left behind. Recent unemployment figures reflect that. Only 4.1% of those with a bachelor's degree or higher are, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployed at the moment.

An August 2008 poll by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that the percentage of Americans who believe that "a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world" increased from 31% in 2000 to 50% in 2007. More than 60% of those polled believe, however, that "many people who are qualified don't have the opportunity to go to college," and that college expenses are increasing at an equal or faster rate than health care in this country. This is especially true among black and Hispanic parents, the poll found.

Between hopes and grim realities, students and families find themselves caught, as the poll's authors put it, in a higher education "squeeze play."

Leveling the Playing Field

How, then, to make college affordable again? With the education funding in the Obama administration's stimulus package and the proposed fiscal 2010 budget now before Congress, the Obama administration has made addressing the cost of higher education a national issue -- at the very moment when it also threatens to become a national scandal. Included in the two pieces of legislation are increases in the maximum value of Pell Grants and tuition tax credits, as well as programs to make aid more available to more colleges, and to create a $2.5 billion program to increase support for access to, and completion of, college (with a needed focus on low-income students).

The crisis of college affordability is too severe, however, for reinvestment at the federal level alone to make the difference. Need-based financial aid programs -- for instance, the University of Michigan's community college transfer program, which focuses on increasing access for high achieving, lower-income students at community colleges -- are no less crucial. Indeed, as more students enroll in less expensive, open admissions two-year colleges, hoping later to transfer to a four-year college, investing in this educational pipeline will increase affordability and accessibility for lower-income students.

What higher education leaders could also try, says Don Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, is more convincingly selling their message for increased education funding to state and federal lawmakers. "We need to try to sell the message that investments in post-secondary education don't just reap private returns for individuals but also social returns, or societal benefits," Heller said. "We need to do more to get that message out about societal returns. We need to reach the key people."

Speaking of reaching key people, when next I ran into Bobby Stapleton at a campus coffee shop, he was far more confident that his younger brother would make it to Ann Arbor. In the previous month, his parents' financial situation had improved, making it more likely that they could contribute toward tuition costs, and the state had finally agreed to come up with some financial assistance as well.

 
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