A future out of reach

July 29, 2002|By Charlene R. Nunley

IN THE news recently, two stories sharply illustrated one critical gap.

Story No. 1 tells of a report by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance stating that nearly 170,000 top high school graduates from low- and moderate-income families aren't going to college this year because they cannot afford it. The report, submitted to Congress and the U.S. Education Department, warns that millions more could be locked out of college by the end of the decade.

Story No. 2 tells of a six-day bus tour of elite East Coast universities by a group of high school students - a trip for which each student's family paid $1,385. The concerns of these students centered on where they would be accepted, not whether they would be able to attend college at all.

Education circles and the media are rife with stories about how the college affordability gap is widening. The recently issued advisory committee report, "Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America," is just the latest to show that finances are a huge barrier, even for low-income students with high college readiness.

These are students I see every day, the thousands who struggle - increasingly - with affordability. Many of them enroll at community colleges like the one I head, Montgomery College, institutions that are absolutely essential gateways for families wishing to achieve the American dream. And with the number of high school graduates rising across the country, our role in meeting the need for access to higher education is rising as well.

My greatest worry for our highly diverse student body these days is twofold: whether we will have the resources to meet all their needs and whether they will have the resources to afford even a community college tuition. In Maryland, our funding was significantly pared back during the recent economic downturn.

Yet our state's community colleges may be among the lucky ones, as we escaped this year in better shape than many around the country. While our formula-driven state aid was reduced in Maryland, we still did receive a 4 percent hike for next year. Many of our peers around the country actually saw their state aid slashed from previous levels.

When public funding is cut, institutions such as Montgomery College face two untenable possibilities: We raise tuition or we offer only as many classes as we can afford to staff.

Both solutions are short-term fixes that can have a substantial negative impact on the students most in need of opportunity. Each also negatively affects the economic potential of our nation.

We all know that virtually all job growth areas for the future will require prospective candidates to have at least some level of college background. The need for higher education truly has become universal in our country.

Let's not treat higher education, particularly community college education, as an optional commodity as we look for solutions to the economic challenges of our states. If we do, we surely will shut the door to opportunity for many.

The truth is that local, state and federal investment in community colleges and need-based financial aid for our students will pay dividends for years to come.

Being rejected from one of our country's top private institutions or even a state university is disappointing. Not being able to afford and enroll in a local community college is a tragedy.

Charlene R. Nunley is president of Montgomery College, a multi-campus community college in Montgomery County.

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