By Craig Smith
State policies leave families with a few good options.
TODAY, MANY STUDENTS face a stark choice: go to college and acquire a mountain of debt that will come due right after graduation, or forgo college altogether. Sadly, this choice is the primary one confronting those who stand to gain the most from higher education: the economically disadvantaged and people of color.
Nationwide, the mountain of student debt has climbed to more than $1 trillion.
We cannot solve the nation’s education debt problem without confronting the other challenges that beset our system of higher education. First among them is the pattern of states stepping back from investing taxpayer dollars in public higher education. In a report released this summer, “On the Backs of Students and Families: Disinvestment in Higher Education and the Student Loan Debt Crisis,” the AFT shows that this massive, decades-long disinvestment has:
- Driven tuition cost increases, without necessarily improving quality;
- Decreased the amount of resources necessary to help students gain access to, persist in and complete their college education;
- Decreased the amount of need-based aid available for the neediest students, as institutions steer scarce resources toward students who will help pad a school’s measured outcomes;
- Increased the search for ways to deliver higher education on the cheap with technological fixes of dubious educational value; and
- Provided fertile ground for exploitative for-profit education providers who prey on those who are unable to access public higher education.
Worst of all, the disinvestment in higher education has thwarted the very foundation our modern system of education rests upon—opportunity.
State support hits a 25-year low
State and local governments have decreased their levels of investment in public colleges and universities to the point where state funding accounts for only 10 percent or less of many public universities’ budgets. Community colleges, which serve nearly half of all college students, are experiencing the most dramatic cuts.
According to the annual State Higher Education Finance report for fiscal year 2011, “educational appropriations per FTE [full-time equivalent student] (defined to include state and local support for general higher education operations) fell to $6,532 in 2010, a 25-year low in inflation-adjusted terms, and fell further to $6,290 in 2011.”1
Demos, a public policy group, sheds further light: “While state spending on higher education increased by $10.5 billion in absolute terms from 1990 to 2010, in relative terms, state funding for higher education declined. Real funding per public full-time equivalent student dropped by 26.1 percent from 1990-1991 to 2009-2010.”2
It is, of course, important to be able to quantify in dollars the cuts being made in higher education, but it’s also important to keep in mind what these vanishing dollars represent: a reduction in the academic support staff, the services and programs they provide, and the support for instructional staff that is necessary for students to succeed.
Evidence suggests that, unlike in the past, recovery from the deep cuts being felt today could be impossible, given projected enrollment levels for the next decade and the change in legislative priorities that is shifting the cost burden onto the backs of students and families.3
Tuition and fees are going up
During academic year 2010-11, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges rose by 8.3 percent, out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges increased by 5.7 percent, and in-state tuition and fees at public two-year colleges rose by 8.7 percent.4 This is just one slice in a years-long trend of increases in tuition that have exceeded the rate of inflation, in some cases by double digits.
And yet, even with skyrocketing tuition and record enrollments, colleges have not been able to fill the gap caused by state disinvestment. The Delta Cost Project, an organization that studies college costs, notes that “for the majority of institutions, increases in tuition do not translate into increases in spending. In fact, at most public institutions, tuition increases attempt to compensate for lost revenues from state and local budget reductions, but actual tuition increases are less than half of the actual reduction in state and local appropriations.”5 In short, college has become more expensive for students and families at the same time as colleges have less to spend on students.
Resources are lacking
Disinvestment has led to radical changes in the academic workforce. Colleges are increasingly relying on contingent faculty to do the bulk of undergraduate teaching. Contingent faculty—who now comprise more than 70 percent of the instructional corps—are every bit as committed to the education of their students and the mission of their institutions as their tenure-track colleagues, yet they receive a fraction of the compensation, few of the employee benefits, and entirely too little respect for doing the same work. Disinvestment has left a majority of college educators without the professional supports they need to provide the highest-quality education to their students.
The students who are most hurt by this are economically disadvantaged students and students of color. Because of the radical demographic changes in the United States, the challenges move beyond questions of economic competitiveness and encompass fundamental questions about civil rights and racial justice.
According to Demos, in 1990, 71.7 percent of young adults were white, 13.5 percent were African-American and 11.6 percent were Hispanic. By 2010, Hispanics accounted for 20.1 percent of the young adult population; African-Americans, 12.3 percent; and whites, 57.2 percent.6 That’s a 93.3 percent increase for Hispanic young adults from 1990 to 2010; by 2050, the U.S. Hispanic population will make up 29 percent of the overall U.S. population, compared with 14 percent overall in 2005.7
This is especially significant because Hispanic students tend to have greater financial need, face more obstacles to college completion because they are often first in their families to go to college, and be less prepared academically thanks to inequities in the K-12 system.8 The inability or unwillingness to address the reasons that students—especially students of color—fail to attend, persist in and complete college not only hampers the nation’s global competitiveness, but serves to reinforce the de facto segregation of a large and growing number of people in the United States. As Deborah Santiago notes in “Pragmatism Rules,” which begins on page 12, investing in programs to support first-generation college students pays off for them and for the country.
Riding the college completion bandwagon
In recent years, as more and more people have gotten the message about the importance of college, people are also focusing on the end goal, completion. College enrollments have soared, partially due to a poor economy, but also because of the national goal President Barack Obama set when he first took office—to significantly raise the college completion rate. By 2025, the United States should have educated 20 million more college-degree and certificate holders in order to ensure our economic stability and status as a global competitor.
However, despite the increase in college enrollments, college completion rates are stagnant.9 If the United States stays on course with current college completion rates, we will graduate only 8 million more college-degree and certificate holders between 2012 and 2025. Anthony Carnevale, an economist with the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, contends that this number falls short by 12 million.10
Getting more students to complete their degrees is a worthy goal; however, the combination of the rush to implement the completion agenda with the states disinvesting in public higher education has led to a host of questionable practices. These include performance-funding mechanisms that hinge a percentage of state higher education appropriations on how well institutions increase their graduation rates, accountability systems that emphasize learning outcomes and other high-quality assessment mechanisms, and differential tuition price structures that have dampened enrollments in engineering and the sciences. Institutions have created marketing plans to attract the higher tuition payments from out-of-state students. Underfunding or entirely cutting student support services, especially those that help first-generation and at-risk students, is another popular cost-savings measure. And as technology has evolved, it has been increasingly eyed as a cheaper and more efficient way to deliver instructional services and credentials to students.
While many look for the magic bullet to achieve student success, those academics on the ground know what’s required. We lose the vast majority of noncompleters within the first year of college. Students like the Young Invincibles (see page 8) have been clear about the supports they need to succeed: They need better financial aid assistance through grants and scholarships, as well as better financial counseling, more informative and accessible counseling and advising, more accessible faculty (a largely contingent faculty workforce undermines this), smaller class sizes and more course offerings, a culture of encouraging students to seek guidance and help, and better orientation programs.11
The for-profit threat
As access to public higher education diminishes, one sector is sweeping in to fill in the gap: for-profit institutions. The percentage of all undergraduates enrolled in the for-profit sector increased from 2 percent in 1990 to 11.8 percent in 2008-09.12 And because federal student financial aid is the main source of revenue for the for-profit sector, students at for-profit schools account for close to 25 percent of the Pell Grant dollars and 25 percent of federal student loans backed by taxpayer dollars, even though for-profits actually enroll only 10 percent of students in higher education. For-profits have also focused their efforts on enrolling veterans to get GI Bill money. Of the $4.4 billion the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs disbursed during the 2010-11 academic year, $1 billion went to just eight for-profit schools; for-profits took in 37 percent of all GI Bill money.
Why is this trend concerning? These federal dollars are used to fuel large profit margins—on average 19 percent—that allow for-profit colleges to devote huge sums of money to their advertising budgets.
But rather than resulting in a career and economic mobility, the result for students is, all too often, a financial nightmare.
More than half of all students (54 percent) who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2009 from a private for-profit university had more than $30,000 in student loans, while just 12 percent of those graduating from public schools did. Students from for-profit institutions hold a disproportionately high percentage of student loan defaults: In 2010, 48 percent of students who defaulted on student loans were from for-profits.13
The road forward
AFT members are committed to advocating for better support of higher education and reversing the trends of disinvestment and unsustainable student debt. It is impossible to address the challenges of access, persistence and completion in our colleges and universities without dealing with the structural problems in public higher education financing. We must stop balancing our state and institutional budgets on the backs of our students and families.
Craig Smith is director of AFT Higher Education and a co-author of “On the Backs of Students and Families: Disinvestment in Higher Education and the Student Loan Debt Crisis.” Read the whole report at http://go.aft.org/studentdebt.
11. Lake Research Partners, “Exploring Student Attitudes, Aspirations and Barriers to Success” (March 2011). Available at http://www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/studentfocusgrp0311.pdf
12. Doug Lederman, “News: 3 Million and Counting,” Inside Higher Ed, August 26, 2010, retrieved September 14, 2010, from www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/08/26/enroll.