A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, December 04, 2008

College: the great gatekeeper

As a mother, I feel the anxiety building, and this is years away for us, which makes it all the worse, if you consider the trends.

An independent report on American higher education flunks all but one state when it comes to affordability — an embarrassing verdict that is unlikely to improve as the economy contracts.

The biennial study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which evaluates how well higher education is serving the public, handed out Fs for affordability to 49 states, up from 43 two years ago. Only California received a passing grade in the category, a C, thanks to its relatively inexpensive community colleges.

The report card uses a range of measurements to give states grades, from A to F, on the performance of their public and private colleges. The affordability grade is based on how much of the average family's income it costs to go to college.
Almost everywhere, that figure is up, according to the survey. Only two states — New York and Tennessee — have made even minimal improvements since 2000, but they're still considered to be failing. Everywhere else, families must fork over a greater percentage of their income to pay for college. In Illinois, the average cost attending a public four-year college has jumped from 19 percent of family's income in 1999-2000 to 35 percent in 2007-2008, and in Pennsylvania, from 29 percent to 41 percent. Low-income families have been hardest hit. Nationally, enrollment at a local public college costs families in the top fifth of income just 9 percent of their earnings, while families from the bottom fifth pay 55 percent — up from 39 percent in 1999-2000.

And that's after accounting for financial aid, which is increasingly being used to lure high-achieving students who boost a school's reputation, but who don't need help to go to college. The problem seems likely to worsen as the economy does, said Patrick Callan, the center's president. Historically during downturns, "states make disproportionate cuts in higher education and, in return for the colleges taking them gracefully, allow them to raise tuition," Callan said. "If we handle this recession like we've handled others, we will see that this gets worse."

Scott Cristal of Columbia, Mo., said he wasn't surprised by the study's findings. Cristal, who has sent two daughters to college and has another two yet to pay for, said that he is trying to expand his business to help pay the tuition bills, but that it's been hard because of the slowing economy.

"We're going to play it by ear, be optimistic, hope for the best and just ride it out as best we can," Cristal said. "I think that's what everybody in America's doing right now."

States fared modestly better in other categories such as participation, where no state failed and about half the states earned As or Bs — comparable to the report two years ago. One reason for the uptick is that more students are taking rigorous college-prep courses, the study found. In Texas, for instance, the percentage of high schoolers taking at least one upper-level science course has nearly tripled from 20 percent to 56 percent.

But better preparation for college hasn't translated into better enrollment or completion, with only two states — Arizona and Iowa — receiving an A for participation in higher education.

And the discrepancy in enrollment between states is still great: Forty-four percent of young Iowans are in college, while just 18 percent of their counterparts in Alaska — one of three states to get an F in the category — are enrolled.Callan said the United States is at best standing still while other countries pass it in areas like college enrollment and completion. And as higher education fails to keep up with population growth, the specter lurks of new generations less educated than their Baby Boomer predecessors.

"The educational strength of the American population is in the group that's about to retire," Callan said. "In the rest of the world it's the group that's gone to college since 1990."

The credit crunch is certainly going to affect the number of families who will be willing -- or able-- to mortgage their lives to send their children to college. I wonder if anyone in higher education has thought of that?

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At 12/4/08, 8:16 PM, Blogger Amerloc said...

Like you, I have no clue how this one's going to shake out in the long term. Unless you go to the REAL long term, in which case we fall into the imploding sun and it doesn't matter anyway.

And, like you, I have no firm idea of what the solution might be. What I do believe is that we're looking at the unintended consequences of economic and tax policy at all levels in the US. It's either that or a tin-foil hat conspiracy theory that it's all a deliberate effort to make sure that the person who asks "Would you like fries with that?" can calculate square roots or diagram complex sentences on the back of the napkins they throw in the bag.

Here in Texas the legislature deregulated university tuition and lowered taxes. WTF did they think would happen???

It's sad. Wife and I are retired teachers. We never saw the high side of the hog in our life, much less lived in that neighborhood. And the taxes we pay in/to the state of Texas (not counting gas tax) amount to about 3% of our income. City maintenance alone is worth that to me, much less law enforcement, much, much less public education at all levels.

Seriously. I can sweep my own hundred feet of street, and I can shoot the folks that come through the window instead of ringing the doorbell. But I can't teach calculus, and I can't teach Spanish. Or art. Or music. Or third grade.

But if they want to come by the house, I can teach 'em to calculate square roots or diagram sentences on the back of a napkin. Now there's some useful skills...

At 12/5/08, 8:13 AM, Blogger MommyProf said...

We think about it a lot. I think everyone in the trenches is afraid of what will happen with class size in the future.

It is a very difficult problem, mostly because colleges compete for students essentially through the quality of the environment and student services, which are extremely expensive to provide. Professors aren't getting rich, I promise.

But we need more administration to oversee things like the comprehensive fitness program, the "living and learning centers" that try to compete with local luxury apartments and, of course, athletics.

The students get used to a much higher standard of living and services than they will be able to afford for a LONG time after they graduate.

As a parent, I'd be seriously thinking about a year or two of JuCo and then transferring to graduate from a 4-year.

At 12/7/08, 3:23 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Oh, no-- I certainly know that it isn't professors' salaries that is causing the explosion in price. Administrators are another matter, though.

You certainly have a point about the luxe accommodations. My own alma mater has remade the campus so that it is a veritable oasis. I am completely jealous! Our campus store had ONE sweatshirt and was the size of a walk-in closet. Now, it's just amazing!

At 12/12/08, 8:20 AM, Anonymous Ivory said...

The increase in tuition has different causes at different institutions. At research institutions, the amount of funding from the state is small compared to the amount of funding from research (20/80 split) so rising tuition costs reflect a decrease in the funding of grants for research. Fluctuations in the state budget provide an excuse to raise fees but are not what actually drives major changes in revenue. At master's granting institutions (in my state), funding is split the opposite way, with 80% coming from the state and 20% coming from other sources (grants and philanthropy). In this case, low taxes are to blame for increasing tuition because they cause cuts in funding from the state. Community colleges are even more susceptible to the slings and arrows of outrageous state budgets and their fees go up as tax dollars decrease. So in most public institutions, tuition is rising because folks won't pay more taxes and in fact want tax decreases even in years when state revenue falls. I can't comment on private schools but I suspect that part of what is driving the increase in costs there is an increase in the emphasis on research by faculty which drives up operating costs without increasing the teaching "output" of those faculty. This trend is driven by an academic culture that increasingly is hostile to teaching and devalues it, placing all emphasis on professional research as the "product" of choice for a faculty member.

At 12/18/08, 9:26 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Wow, Ivory. That was BRILLIANT.

Couldn'ta said it better myself.


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