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President Obama vowed in 2009 that by 2020 America would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Now, nearly halfway to his deadline, very little has changed to make that goal feasible. Even with colleges pledging to help low-income students, access to higher education and financial help for many disadvantaged students remains limited. And fewer than half of those that do make it to college still fail to earn a bachelor’s after six years. Completion rates for community colleges are even worse. The Hechinger Report has sent reporters around the country to cover some of the most pressing problems in higher education – and highlighting programs that might solve them.
It’s been a big year for our organization, too. We’ve doubled our full-time staff and are producing more content than even seemed possible when we started four and a half years ago. But as much as we’ve enjoyed 2014, we can’t wait for 2015. We’ll be launching several major new projects and will be showcasing our work on a new website coming in January. While you’re waiting for that, take a look at some of our top higher education stories from the past year:
A major Hechinger Report investigation, in collaboration with the Dallas Morning News and Education Writers Association found that America’s colleges and universities are quietly shifting the burden of their big tuition increases onto low-income students, while many higher-income families are seeing their college costs rise more slowly, or even fall. Tuition tax credits and other tax breaks to offset the cost of higher education also disproportionally benefit more affluent Americans. Recent data show this trend continuing at most colleges and universities, including those that have publicly promised to make it easier for low-income students to go to college.
More than $1 billion a year in federal taxpayer-funded work-study money goes to children of better-off families at expensive private universities and not their lower-income counterparts. The money for work-study is allocated based on how much the university got the year before, and how much it charges. The result is that, today, nearly one in four work-study recipients comes from a family that earns more than $80,000 a year, a higher proportion than come from families that make less than $20,000.
In spite of at least eight years of promise after promise from politicians that they would make the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, easier, the form remains a barrier to college for low-income students who may be the first in their families to attend college. The White House has announced a push to increase those numbers, not by making more improvements to the FAFSA, but by imploring students to finish it and recruiting mentors to help them.
An increasing number of community colleges around the country have started offering four-year bachelor’s degrees in fields for which there is high job demand. Critics and supporters of the trend say alternately that it is helping fill an important social need most universities aren’t, or that it’s an ego-driven, money-wasting cry for prestige and respect from institutions at the low end of the higher-education hierarchy. Whatever their motivation, community colleges in 21 states now have the authority to offer bachelor’s degrees.
With fewer jobs available for new lawyers and staggering drops in the number of applicants, law schools have been forced to offer discounts. Nationwide, law schools at public universities dropped their median tuition for out-of-state students by an average of five percent in 2011 and another eight percentin 2012, as private law school tuition increased by an annual average of only four percent, the lowest in 26 years. Is it only when demand declines that higher education manages to lower prices?
Universities and colleges generally give veterans little credit for their military training and experience — even though the skills they’ve learned, in fields such as nursing and law enforcement, are in high demand, and even as more and more are being discharged into the job market. In addition to time, the problem is costing veterans money to pay for courses about subjects they already know, often subsidized by taxpayers through GI Bill benefits that have totaled nearly $35 billion since 2009.
Hechinger contributing editor Barbara Kantrowitz spent the 2013-2014 school year following five seniors at New Rochelle High School. In New Rochelle, an ethnically and economically diverse city of about 78,000 just north of the Bronx, money is on the minds of most college-bound seniors. Even families that are solidly middle class struggle with soaring college tuitions. In the final piece, Kantrowitz details the decision process of Matisse Clayton, from deciding where to apply to making tough choices about financial aid.
At Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, select students go through the Associate Accelerated Program to earn a degree in 11 months. The students have to pledge to stay in college full time, not work, and continue living with their parents or guardians. They also can’t choose what courses to take. In return for their commitment, they get intense supports, personal attention, and help contending with the college bureaucracy.
When Indiana published state college graduation rates for the first time earlier this year, the news was not good. The average on-time graduation rate at four-year schools turned out to be 28 percent. Still, Indiana is ahead of many other states in widely broadcasting public universities’ and colleges’ success rates as part of an attempt to force them up by, among other things, providing information to prospective students and their families weighing where to enroll. It’s a strategy much like what the Obama administration is proposing to do nationally.
In September, Jon Marcus went to the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities to provide a rare glimpse of a lobbying operation that even its critics say has been as effective as it is little known. This year’s meeting had the tone of a revival, with organization president David Warren urging members to fight against proposed ratings of colleges and universities the White House said would help consumers see what they’re getting for their tuition dollars.
Nearly nine out of 10 freshmen think they’ll earn their bachelor’s degrees within the traditional four years. But the U.S. Department of Education reports that fewer than half that many actually will. And about 45 percent won’t have finished even after six years. That means the anxiety of families and students about the annual cost of college overlooks the enormous additional expense of the extra time it will actually take. The added cost of just one extra year at a four-year public university is $63,718 in tuition, fees, books, and living expenses, research has found, which does not take into account lost potential earnings.
Increasing numbers of students who are the first in their families to go to college struggle to cut through red tape and end up piling up and paying for credits they don’t need while unable to get their questions answered or problems solved. Enter the Continuous Quality Improvement Network, or CQIN, a little-known organization that uses private-sector lessons from companies — including Disney, Southwest Airlines, and Ritz-Carlton — to improve the notoriously impersonal and bureaucratic front-office student support functions blamed for worsening the already high college dropout rate.
Long the Rodney Dangerfields of American higher education, community colleges are suddenly getting some respect. So bad has the perception been of community colleges that they themselves are dropping the “community” from their names in many cases. They remain the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows and in other popular culture. But at a time when there’s huge pressure for reform in higher education, many community colleges are proving more responsive than their four-year counterparts.
While much of the concern about ballooning student debt has so far been focused on undergraduates, there is mounting alarm that it has overlooked a principal source of the problem: graduate students. They now collectively owe as much as 40 percent of the estimated $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt, even though they make up only 14 percent of all university enrollment.
Only two states — North Dakota and Alaska — have increased spending per student on higher education, when adjusted for inflation, since the economic downturn. The rest of the states in the nation have squeezed their higher education budgets so tightly that they’re spending a collective 23 percent less on average than they did at the start of the recession on their public universities and colleges.