Economics Curtailing Access at Public Universities

The headline of this blog posting is no surprise. At Berkeley they are reducing access for economically-disadvantaged students (which require institutional financial aid) and replacing them with out-of-state or out-of-country students who pay full tuition plus for being out-of-state. The article reported the dramatic change that occurred within a single year.

On one hand we have the U.S. President and the Lumina Fundation (among others) calling for a dramatic rise in college graduation rates needed for workforce needs of society and better lives for the college graduates. On the other hand, the financial support for public institutions has dramatically shrunk with little hope for reversal. The institutions are caught inbetween. They are operating with a "zero sum" financial model. To survive, the institutions replace students with financial need with those that have wealth to infuse. How long until we admit the truth, access to higher education requires an investment. Students are willing to invest their lives. Can't we invest more money for their and our collective futures.

Compounding this issue is that more institutions do not have classroom capacity for the increasing number of students that want to attend college. Another building boom is needed to increase the physical capacity of current institutions and probably to add more campuses. Distance learning does not work for everyone as an effective pedagogy, and besides, not everyone has the technology at home nor the finances for high-speed cable. 

It is a good thing that more students want to attend college. We have a collective responsibility to support them, especially those that are historically-underrepresented and economically-disadvantaged.

July 15, 2010, 12:48 PM ET U.C. Berkeley and the Access Mission of Public Universities, By Richard Kahlenberg, Chronicle of Higher Education.

The latest news involving the University of California—“Berkeley Sees Admission of Latino Students Drop and Nonresidents Jump”—pits two groups, Hispanic students and non-Californians. But of course what’s really going on is a struggle over money, economic class and the question of how dedicated public universities will be to their special mission of promoting social mobility. U.C. Berkeley is cash starved, and one way to raise money is to bring in more wealthy out-of-state students, who pay $22,000 more in fees than resident students. Berkeley didn’t make its change slowly—it more than doubled the proportion of out-of-state students in the freshman class in a single year, from 11% to 23%. And it did so with the full awareness that minority students would suffer. The drop in Latino admissions was 12%. (The data published by the U.C. system addressed changes in racial and ethnic breakdown but not income.) Berkeley has a couple of arguments in its defense. Among top colleges, it has long shouldered more than its fair share on the economic diversity front. In 2007, according to an Education Trust report, 33.0 % of Berkeley students received Pell Grants. By comparison, other leading public universities had Pell grant rates that were substantially lower, including the University of Virginia (9.5%), the University of Michigan Ann Arbor (13.4%), and the University of North Carolina, Chapel-Hill (15.3%). Furthermore, Berkeley admits fewer out-of-state students than other leading institutions. Michigan and Virginia, for example routinely admit more than 30% of students from out of state. Some have noted that the big increase in non-Californian freshman may backfire politically, fueling parochial anger from state taxpayers and further reducing the public support for the U.C. system. But this debate goes beyond politics to fundamental questions about the special role of public universities in American society. As scholar Gary Berg notes in new book, Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality: Higher Education in America, today most private universities “serve a higher percentage of students from low-income families” than do public universities, undermining the “special responsibility” of public institutions of higher education to promote access. Some will argue that in tough economic times, public universities have no choice but to make financial decisions that hurt low-income students. This sounds plausible, but what, then, is the excuse for the major decline of academically qualified low-income high school graduates at public and private four-year institutions in more financially flush years? According to a recent report of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 54% of such students enrolled in four-year colleges in 1992, but by 2004, only 40% did. U.C. Berkeley has been long been the poster child for promoting both academic excellence and economic diversity—a worthy outlier, defending the particular mission of public universities. Its special status makes the recent retreat especially poignant.