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If Education Leads to Prosperity, Every Student Should Have the Opportunity for College

It seems that everywhere we turn these days, higher education statistics get a tad uglier. A recent article promoting online education had this sad introduction:

Alarming statistics have been put forward showing the increased rate of college dropouts. Back in the 1960s college dropout rates were as low as one (1) in every five (5) students, this shifted to one (1) in every three (3) in the 1990s. Figures from the Department of Education for 2000 through 2008 show that 30% of students enrolled in schools leave in their first year and a shocking 50% never graduate.

We have spent countless words noting that higher education, often held up as an example to the world, actually may be the weakest strand of the educational process, K-16. Everything from their poor graduation rates to their ability to be relevant to today’s tech savvy world raises questions about America’s system of higher education.

At the same time, we have never extolled the common mantra that college is right for every student. We tend to side with Charles Murray and have indicated our lack of support for the notion of college for everyone.

Key Discussion Point Currently

None of this relates to the current educational discussion point that has become a fundamental focus of the Obama administration. Their push is entirely on student access by finding ways to help students address the staggering costs associated with higher education.

It is interesting to see this idea against the view expressed by some older Americans. They hold fast to the notion that college, unlike K-12 public education, should not simply be made available to anyone who wants it. They see this as just one more government entitlement, akin to welfare.

However, to get another viewpoint, we turn to Tolu Olorundawith who offers some very interesting thoughts in “When your college education is a bridge to nowhere.” She first notes renowned educators Henry Giroux and Susan Giroux tackled the notion as to why not all Black and Brown students see college as a “good thing.”

“Since their appearance in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, American colleges followed the traditions established by Oxford, Cambridge, and the continental universities in the preparation of their overwhelmingly white male student body for law, ministry, medicine, and politics.” [Giroux, Henry; Giroux, Susan. Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 (1st ed.), p. 144.]

Obama Is Right

Olorundawith moves on to then quote the work of Andy Kroll. His piece on Alternet, “A Crisis of Affordability: How Our Public Colleges Are Turning into Gated Communities for the Wealthy” directly tackles the Obama notion, the need for greater affordability.

In addressing the growing disparities in college affordability for Black and Brown students, Kroll contends that the recent spike in college costs nationally has been done precisely to ensure that the white male of affluence becomes the only group able to attend institutions of higher learning. Olorundawith summarizes Kroll thus:

Big businesses, Andy argues, have no problem aiding and abetting the rich in reaching their goals of transforming Colleges into educational “gated communities”–reserved only for the privileged, elite, and powerful.

In his piece, Kroll does offer some incredible statistics from “The Education Trust” related to college affordability for those most in need of support.

In the past several decades, the cost of higher education has climbed at an astounding pace — faster than the Consumer Price Index, faster even than the cost of medical care. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition, fees, and room and board has increased nearly 100%, from $7,857 in 1977-1978 to $15,665 in 2007-2008 (in constant 2006-2007 dollars). Median household income, on the other hand, has risen a mere 18% over that same period, from about $42,500 to just over $50,000. College costs, in other words, have gone up at more than five times the rate of incomes.

… state flagship universities and a group of other major research universities spent $257 million in 2003 on financial aid for students from families earning more than $100,000 a year. Those same universities spent only $171 million on aid to students from families who made less than $20,000 a year. Similarly, between 1995 and 2003, according to the report, grant aid from the same public universities to students from families making $80,000 or more increased 533%, while grant aid to families making less than $40,000 increased only 120%.

Simply to ensure that a child attends a four-year public university, a family in the country’s lowest-income bracket now has to pay, on average, 55% of total income (up from 39% in 2000); for a middle-income family, the average is 25% (up from 18% in 2000); and for an upper-income family, 9% (up from 7%), according to “Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education” by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Not a Ticket, Just a Chance

It is important to realize that a college education is not going to be the answer for everyone. Even Olorundawith notes that in tougher economic times, that degree may not mean a whole lot irrespective of color:

Of course, in any dialogue concerning the merits and benefits of a College degree, the impact of the current economic crisis must be addressed. With unemployment skyrocketing in communities of color, students with Bachelor’s can often be found working shifts at Burger King, with those earning their Master’s managing at McDonald’s, and even Ph.D.s confirming your Papa John’s Pineapple Pizza order.

But if education is considered the great equalizer and a college degree is generally deemed a strong positive step towards a more viable job future, the opportunity should be available for every one who wants it and is willing to put in the time and effort.

While we are not so inclined to support the conspiracy theory postulated by Kroll, we do believe it is essential for America to begin reducing its incredible economic stratification. And one aspect towards shrinking the gap between the haves and the have nots is to ensure that college is not available solely to those of means.

1 comment

1 Joseph Thibault { 06.19.09 at 4:00 pm }

I agree that the costs are prohibitive and that the actual benefit of a degree from an inept institution is not as valuable as it once was.

But these are unaligned aspects of the problem with higher education today. I think we need to figure out what we are so concerned about in higher education and focus on that, if getting a degree isn’t worth nearly as much, then students not getting into college are receiving a favor (namely no debt and the short road to a profession)…

It’s not that I’m not all for equity in college admissions and outcomes, it’s just that if we truly believe the value of a bachelors or masters has decreased then there arises a host of other issues facing the US.

I still tend to think that our post-secondary education system is world class, but if I were in a place to affect policy I would be putting more funding and energy into the development of strong, flexible, and career specific 2 year (or less) programs. The shortage of nursing alone is a great example of how a 2 year program could easily meet the current demands of a national crisis, and yet, many of these programs have 2-3 year waiting lists forcing those students with the means to go after a 4 year program. That doesn’t make a lick of sense.

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