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Discussion: How Can We Keep Public Universities Accessible?

(Photo of University of California Berkeley from Wikimedia Commons)

Public universities have a vital public mission — backed by decades of public investment — to provide access to an affordable education for students. But faced with dwindling state support, many state universities have shifted their financial-aid dollars to attract students who will help schools generate more tuition revenue or move up in the rankings.

As Marian Wang’s recent investigation found, public universities have been giving a growing share of grants to the wealthiest students, and a shrinking share to the poorest students. A rising sticker price and a drop in available aid means many of the lowest-income students are being squeezed out of an affordable public education.

What should be done about how schools are using their financial aid? With budget cutbacks, how can public schools mind their bottom line while staying accessible for the lowest-income students? We had higher education experts weigh in on Reddit on Thursday. Here are some highlights:

Jerry Lucido, head of the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice: 

I have made the argument in a recent Center for American Progress report that all institutions could cut back non-need based aid (of all types) in favor of need-based aid without impact on rankings and for the public benefit. Public institutions, as the article notes, should certainly do so, but private institutions are also held in the public trust as "non-profit" entities and should not be left off the hook. Institutions could reduce non-need based aid an agreed upon fixed percent per year, moving it to needy students, but one institution will not do it if all do not come along. Department of Justice concerns about "price fixing" make this cooperation difficult. The DoJ and others should not consider this fixing prices, given that competition will remain the same. Overall costs would drop for needy students if this were permitted.

Anthony Carnevale, Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce:

What can be done? In combination, both race- and class-based affirmative action can at least ensure that highly qualified African-American, Hispanic, and lower-income students gain access to well-funded and selective colleges that lead to elite careers. But affirmative action is not enough to make more than a dent in the larger systematic racial and class bias in the core economic and educational mechanisms at the root of inequality. Affirmative action, whether it is race —or class-based— or some combination of the two can help out those who strive and overcome the odds, yet does relatively little to change the odds themselves. There are always African-American, Hispanic, and working class strivers who beat the odds, but for the mass of disadvantaged people it is the odds that count. The odds are stacked against African-American, Latino, and low-income students. Disadvantage, like privilege, comes from a complex network of mutually reinforcing economic and educational mechanisms that only can be dealt with through a multifaceted economic and educational policy response.

Richard Kahlenberg, author and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where he writes about a variety of education issues:

Marian Wang's terrific article shows that between 1996 and 2012, public institutions moved scarce resources away from low-income students to wealthy students. This makes little sense from a public policy standpoint. The reason taxpayers support financial aid is that our whole society benefits when more people go to college and get a great education. Wealthy students will go to college with or without aid. So federal policies should provide an incentive (sticks and carrots) for states to redirect non-need merit aid to need-based grants. We need to focus on on those students for whom the funds will make the difference in their decision of whether or not to attend college.

Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, Research Director for the The Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality at Duke University:

Does anyone even know what "more affordable" means? It is important to remember that taxpayers are not a homogeneous group. So I can imagine that some high earning taxpayers (often mistaken for the middle class) see public colleges in the same way they see public K-12 schools - make them better and more competitive so that I am not "taxed" twice to educate my child. As for moving resources away from low-income students to wealthy students, one could argue that it is a return on investment decision. The value added to the low-income child, even if they don't graduate, may be higher than the value added to the wealthy child. But the wealthy child is more likely, and their parents probably have resources now, to make gifts to the college.

Zakiya Smith, former White House Senior Policy Advisor for Education:

What if the federal government incented states to ensure that at least public college financial aid was going to low-income students? States that did a better job could get more federal aid, or perhaps colleges that skew their aid to more low-income students could get bigger breaks on some regulatory burdens?...some of the nation's most elite colleges ONLY give need based aid. But, they have big endowments and aren't in competition with anyone else. Places like Berea college in Kentucky are totally free to all students and have a high proportion of Pell eligible students. The data available on the College Navigator that ProPublica used to identify these negative trends could also be used to identify colleges that are doing this the right way. 

I think the ratings system recently proposed by President Obama would actually discourage, rather than encourage, this sort of behavior, because it would (he says) be based on the value-add of college and include factors such as how well they serve low-income students. That would discourage colleges from creaming top kids and provide incentives for them to recruit and successfully serve more disadvantaged students. Of course, designing the right weights/measures/etc is difficult, but it seems like we all acknowledge that the current institutional prestige incentives are doing us no favors.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Christie Thompson

Christie Thompson was an intern at ProPublica. She studied journalism at Northwestern University, and has written for The Nation, The Chicago Reporter and

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