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The “Great Recession” of 2008 had a major impact on college and university budgets. State appropriations, on a per-student basis, have declined by more than 20 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. Yet expectations from political leaders have proliferated.

Higher education funding
Donald E. Heller

For example, five years ago the president called on the nation’s colleges and universities to produce more college graduates and ensure those graduates are leaving our institutions with high-paying salaries. Now the latest topic du jour for the White House is “undermatching,” which is where low-income, high achieving students choose to enroll in less selective institutions. At a White House meeting last month with 100 college presidents, Obama issued a “call to action” that identified undermatching as the first in a list of barriers faced by low-income students.

While this issue may be worthwhile, getting the roughly 30,000 undermatched students in the nation into better colleges will do nothing to achieve President Obama’s goal. Each year, millions of low-income students enroll in college, and most are the first in their families to do so. But many struggle — much more than students from wealthier families — to stay enrolled and complete their degrees. Students from high-income families graduate from college at a rate three times that of their poorer peers.

The great majority of these low-income students do not have high levels of academic achievement. They didn’t attend well-funded public school districts and weren’t given private school resources. They didn’t earn the best grades, but most have the ability to earn a degree if they receive the necessary academic and social support.

In order to move more of these students through to a college degree, there are a number of steps that states, the federal government, and colleges and universities can take. First, states need to reinvest the funds they have cut from funding public colleges and universities during the recession. At some point this becomes an issue of dollars and cents. Do public colleges and universities have the money to continue programs that help support the neediest of students?

If we’re serious about achieving President Obama’s goal of returning our nation to prominence in postsecondary attainment, we need to ensure that colleges and universities have the capital they need to reach those goals.

Here are just two examples of what increased funding might do for these students:

·      Universities could offer more pre-college programs targeted at high school youths who need extra assistance in order to qualify for admission.  These could be modeled on the federal TRIO programs, which target low-income and first-generation college students, but whose funding allows them to serve fewer than 10 percent of the eligible population.

·      Once enrolled in college, at-risk students could receive higher levels of academic support in order to ensure they keep pace with their better-prepared peers.  Many institutions provide intensive academic support programs for student athletes to keep them on track for graduation; colleges and universities have an obligation to provide the same levels of support to other at-risk students.

Institutions should be held accountable for the use of these additional state funds, and demonstrate how they are increasing the graduation rates of all their low-income students.

It’s irresponsible to blame colleges and universities for failures when public money is drying up. Research shows that low-income students face not just academic barriers to college success, but large financial hurdles as well.  In an era of skyrocketing tuition prices, well-targeted grant aid is an important tool for helping these students enroll in college and persist through to a degree once there.

While it is true that federal Pell Grant and state need-based grant programs have seen increases during the recession, those increases are not because the size of the scholarships have been increased; it’s simply that there are more people taking from the pot.  Federal and state grant programs have not kept pace with tuition costs over the years.

The problem isn’t solely on the federal government and the states. We need to do better as well. The majority of scholarship dollars awarded by colleges and universities is dispersed without consideration of the financial need of students and their families. Every year, institutions award billions of dollars in scholarships to students from upper-income families – students that achieved great grades from wonderful school districts. Focusing instead on students who are at risk for dropping out because of monetary reasons is a more efficient and equitable use of financial aid dollars.

Ensuring college success is a team sport.  If we’re serious about achieving President Obama’s goal of returning our nation to prominence in postsecondary attainment, we need to ensure that colleges and universities have the capital they need to reach those goals.

Donald Heller is dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. 

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