Eroding Higher Education's Equalizing Effects

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Last fall, the Center for American Progress released a brief detailing how state budget cuts have undermined the path to higher education followed by many low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students: the nation’s system of community colleges and other two-year institutions. This interactive map shows how the damage has been geographically distributed, but the overall pattern is clear: the retreat from public education as a truly public good has had significant effects on institutions' capacity to catalyze the dreams of disadvantaged young people. While we have been concerned about policy proposals that would seek to funnel low-income students to two-year colleges by providing financial aid specifically for this path, these institutions clearly have a critical role to play in our higher education system. But this analysis reveals how state budget decisions threaten these schools and, then, negatively affect their students. Thirty-one states cut two-year colleges’ budgets more deeply than four-year schools, despite growing enrollment at community colleges. This means less funding per pupil, of course, and these cuts are not evenly felt by the student body, since students of color are disproportionately served by two-year schools. Schools grappling with these smaller appropriations will likely trim costs in predictable ways, all of which could have devastating effects on students’ degree pursuit—larger class sizes, fewer supportive services, less advising. For many students of color, in particular, community colleges are the access point to higher education. Ensuring that the U.S. higher education system remains a vehicle for economic mobility and greater equity requires preserving this entryway and attending to the distribution of effects of seemingly ‘neutral’ budget contractions. In addition to the policy changes recommended by CAP, including more stable funding and increased educational quality in two-year institutions, AEDI believes that shifting to asset-based financial aid, such that every student is an empowered college saver, is essential. We need a new social contract in education, yes, and it needs to begin even before students enroll for their first college class.

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New Book Released

Today’s student loan system is in place because of a political compromise, and growing discontent with student debt may signal that this arrangement has run its course. While there are resources and organizations in place to help those struggling with debt, the time has come to consider a new direction for financial aid, William Elliott III and Melinda Lewis argue in “Student Debt: A Reference Handbook.”

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