Higher tuition at public colleges could help, not hurt, low-income students

November 25, 1990|By Bob Beyers | Bob Beyers,Pacific News Service

Where do a majority of America's upper-income students attend college? If you guessed Harvard, Yale, Stanford or other private institutions, you're wrong. Most are attending public universities -- benefiting from a hefty subsidy from the state. At the same time, the children of poor parents are being squeezed out of these public institutions by rising costs, decreasing state aid and stiffer admissions requirements.

Many educators see this as a serious problem but fear the political price of addressing it will be so high public institutions will quietly turn their backs on low-income high school graduates.

Over the last decade, the gap in college attendance between affluent and poor high school graduates has grown by 50 percent. "Increasingly, the [economically] poorest college students are concentrated in public two-year colleges," says Thomas G. Mortenson of the American College Testing Program (ACT). "Though never numerous, they have nearly disappeared from public and private colleges during the last decade."

Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Mortenson notes, "virtually every major change in federal, state and institutional student aid has worked for the benefit of students from middle- and high-income backgrounds." Among the changes he cites are the shift of federal aid from grants to loans (which poor students are often reluctant to apply for), and a variety of other policies that -- intentionally or not -- have the effect of increasing the proportion of scholarships that go to the children of more prosperous parents.

Indeed, among freshmen enrolling at highly selective public universities last fall, one-sixth said their family incomes were $100,000 or more. In California, Washington and Iowa, the median parental incomes of undergraduates attending "flagship" state universities are actually higher than those of students enrolled at private colleges and universities.

How might this trend be reversed, to bring more low-income students into the public universities? On the surface, lowering tuition costs would seem to be the most logical solution. But educators point out this would force the schools to lower the overall quality of their educational programs.

The more workable -- but politically explosive -- strategy would be to raise tuition, creating additional funds and setting aside a portion of them for aid to low-income students. But opposition from upper- as well as middle-income parents would likely be vigorous -- a fact not lost on university officials and state legislators.

Not long ago, President Thomas Wallace of Illinois State University proposed a change of this sort: a $500 increase in annual fees, 40 percent of it to be earmarked for student aid. His suggestion went nowhere: The state board of regents refused to even place it on their agenda.

Resistance to such proposals is based on fear of angry reactions from upper-income voters with college-age children, and partly on fear -- probably justified -- that increases in tuition revenues might give state legislators an excuse for reducing appropriations. Currently, public funds foot the bill for about four-fifths of all higher educational costs in the country, according to ACT's Mr. Mortenson, with tuition and fees accounting for only one-fifth.

Absent a political will to address the situation, most state universities and colleges are maintaining the status quo. Norman Cantor, former provost at the State University of New York at Binghamton, estimates that half of the students at SUNY campuses come from families which could afford private college tuition. But instead of charging it, he says, the schools tout "Ivy League education at state colleges."

"The truth is," says another educator, Arlene Okerlund of San Jose State University, "that taxes paid by the poor are providing college education for many of the relatively privileged in our society."

Ms. Okerlund points out that if students in the California State University system paid 20 percent of the $6,086 that the state is contributing for their education in 1990-91, "the California State University budget crunch would be solved. That would amount to an increase of $219 per semester, about the cost of one large pizza each week of the term."

But increasing student fees would be "extremely unpopular," she admits. Meanwhile, raising state taxes for higher education has become "a most unlikely possibility." And if college enrollments are capped, "those who need education the most will be the first excluded."

Congress will review federal aid policy to higher education next year, but educators believe the massive legacy of debt and deficits from the 1980s practically rules out any significant new federal aid programs for students. Although many legislators attended college themselves thanks to massive federal investments in education like the GI Bill, they have little enthusiasm for what they now see as "stipends" for college education.

At private colleges, tuition fees are being hiked to help subsidize grants to poorer students. The total outlay for this purpose now equals about one-fourth of all tuition revenues at private institutions. Unless state universities follow suit, the result will be an even wider split between rich and poor on campus, and a wider income gap between generations.

Bob Beyers formerly directed the Stanford University News Service.

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