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Spring 01
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Educational Opportunity for All?
By Donald E. Heller, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Michigan

This past February, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance released a report titled Access Denied: Restoring the Nation's Commitment to Equal Educational Opportunity. The Advisory Committee was first created in the Higher Education Amendments of 1986 and is charged with advising Congress and the Secretary of Education on student financial aid policy.

Access Denied observes that the country has recently enjoyed a "period of prosperity that has bestowed unprecedented wealth on the nation and many American families" (p. v). Our federal government enjoys large budget surpluses that are projected to continue well into the future, and a national debate is currently underway to decide how those surpluses should be spent, invested, or returned to taxpayers.

Yet at the same time, this prosperity has done little to help move the country toward the ideals articulated over half a century ago by President Truman's Commission on Higher Education:

It is the responsibility of the community, at the local, state, and national levels, to guarantee that financial barriers do not prevent any able and otherwise qualified young person from receiving the opportunity for higher education. There must be developed in this country the widespread realization that money expended for education is the wisest and soundest of investments in the national interest. The democratic community cannot tolerate a society based upon education for the well-to-do alone. If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life (vol. 2, p. 47).

These ideals were codified by Congress almost 20 years later with the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which reaffirmed the nation's commitment to equality of educational opportunity.

Closing the Gaps

Postsecondary education is more important today than ever before. More and more jobs require workers to have the type of training and skills that can only be obtained after completion of high school. Data presented in Access Denied indicate that households headed by an individual with a bachelor's degree enjoy a median income almost twice that of those headed by somebody with only a high school diploma, a difference that adds up to over a million dollars over the typical worker's lifetime. Economists offer a number of competing theories to explain why this gap has grown in recent years, but virtually all agree that the rising college wage premium is real.

Access Denied is not the end of the Advisory Committee's efforts to focus the attention of policymakers, researchers, and institutional leaders on the needs of the nation's poorest students. A more in-depth examination of the topic can be found in a follow-up report issued by the Advisory Committee. This report--The Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students--brings together some of the nation's most knowledgeable policy analysts and researchers on the questions of access and affordability in higher education. Extending the work done in Access Denied, this more recent report provides more details on the challenges faced by lower income students in their efforts to enter, succeed in, and graduate from college.

The Condition of Access documents our nation's lack of progress in achieving equal educational opportunity over the past 35 years. It argues that progress has been undermined by state and federal financial aid policy, which has shifted from meeting access needs of lower income students to ensuring college affordability for middle and upper income families. At the federal level, this has been exemplified by two trends: 1) the shift toward the use of loans, rather than grants, as the primary mechanism for financing higher education, and 2) the passage of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, which created the HOPE and Lifetime Learning tax credits. The rapid growth of merit scholarship programs in states that award grants to students based on criteria other than financial need also reallocates resources from the poor to more affluent families.

These findings are echoed in Measuring Up 2000: The State-by-State Report Card for Higher Education, issued last fall by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. In Measuring Up 2000, former Governor James B. Hunt, Jr. of North Carolina notes:

Despite the accomplishments of American higher education, its benefits are unevenly and often unfairly distributed, and do not reflect the distribution of talent in American society. Geography, wealth, income, and ethnicity still play far too great a role in determining the educational opportunities and life chances of Americans (p. 10).

The Condition of Access highlights several disturbing implications of these policy shifts:

While progress was made on shrinking the gap between the college participation rates of lower income and higher income youth in the 1970s, the gap widened in the 1980s and 1990s and is larger today than it was 30 years ago.

Similar widening gaps exist between minority and majority youth college completion rates.

The amount of unmet financial need--the difference between the price of a college education and the funds available to pay for it (from a combination of one's own resources and the available financial aid)--is greatest for the nation's poorest students.

The demographics of the nation indicate that, compared to past college attendees, future generations of college-bound students will be much poorer, and the vast majority will be from immigrant and minority families--exactly those populations that typically have the greatest need of financial assistance in order to make college accessible. These population changes will only exacerbate the policy failings of recent years and threaten to widen the existing gaps in college participation and attainment.

Addressing the Issues

Access Denied, however, asserts that steps can be taken to avert such a scenario. It makes four major recommendations:

First, the nation's longstanding access goal must be reinstated and federal student aid policy refocused on dramatically reducing current levels of unmet need.

Second, need-based grant aid must be increased for low-income students by reversing the current policy focus on middle-income affordability and merit.

Third, the Title IV programs--number, structure, effectiveness--must be reaffirmed as the nation's long-term solution to solving the access problem.

Fourth, access partnerships between the federal government, states, and institutions must be rebuilt to leverage and target aid to low-income students (p. 17).

While the report lays out specific policy priorities to be established by the federal government, the fourth step above makes it clear that addressing the needs of lower income students is not solely the responsibility of those in Washington. Grant funds available from the federal Title IV programs are far outnumbered by those from state, institutional, and private scholarship programs, so these entities need to play a critical role in recommitting our nation to the goal of equal educational opportunity.

All parties--higher education leaders, policymakers, students, and parents--bear the responsibility for ensuring that these policy priorities remain on the national agenda. Only by continuing to examine and discuss the state of educational opportunity in the nation will we make progress toward achieving the goals first established over fifty years ago by the President's Commission on Higher Education.

Sources Access Denied: Restoring the Nation's Commitment to Equal Educational Opportunity. A Report of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (Washington, DC, 2001); Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students. A Report of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (Washington, DC, 2001); Measuring Up 2000: The State-by-State Report Card for Higher Education (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2000).

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photo of Donald E. Heller

Despite the accomplishments of American higher education, its benefits are unevenly and often unfairly distributed, and do not reflect the distribution of talent in American society.

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New State-By-State Report Card Finds College Opportunity Varies Widely
Measuring Up 2000: The State-by-State Report Card for Higher Education, a report card grading states on their higher education performance, was released November 30, 2000, by the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education. The report features comprehensive, individual profiles of each state, as well as brief "states-at-a-glance" comparisons. Measuring Up 2000 is based on quantitative measures of performance, and states are evaluated using "A" through "F" grades in five key areas: Preparation, Participation, Affordability, Completion, and Benefits. The study was funded through grants from several foundations. The full report is available online at: http://measuringup2000.