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States Earn Poor Marks On College

By Scott J. Cech — December 03, 2008 5 min read
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Though some states have improved their grades on preparing students for college, a new report card on higher education suggests that nearly all deserve to be on academic probation for failing to keep college affordable.

That message was echoed by many of the advocates, researchers, and experts who took turns at the figurative bullhorn here last week for the release of “Measuring Up 2008,” the fifth in a biennial series of reports by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

“Measuring Up” covers several key indicators of the state of higher education, including academic preparation for college in high school, which showed improvement in some states. But as participants at the event pointed out, preparation doesn’t mean much if money shortages in state coffers and in families’ wallets prevent students from going to college.

“The most common dodge [regarding] college access and completion rates … is that young people aren’t prepared,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, a discussion panelist at the Dec. 3 event and an economist who studies education and employment issues at Georgetown University.

He said that each year close to 600,000 high school graduates who finish in the top half of their classes don’t go on to earn even a two-year degree in the subsequent eight years. And a significant proportion of those students come from low-income families, he said.

Considering families’ ability to pay, the availability of need-based financial aid, low tuition, and other factors, the report gave every state except California an F on college affordability. California received a C, mostly because its community colleges are so inexpensive.

According to the report, the cost of college, including tuition, fees, room, and board, soared 439 percent between the early 1980s and 2006—almost triple the rise in the median family income over the same time.

‘Sobering’ Picture

Researchers found that middle- and upper-income students receive larger college grants than low-income students do, and noted that the total amount that students had to borrow more than doubled over the past decade, to $85 billion.

“That is a huge problem,” said former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, the chairman of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit research organization based in San Jose, Calif.

Patrick M. Callan, the center’s president, said the trend line was pointing toward a future in which college was all but inaccessible to lower- and middle-income Americans. Although efforts undertaken to control college costs have so far have produced some results, he said, the efforts themselves have been too modest to keep up with the erosion of affordability, let alone counteract it.

“We could continue to improve at this rate and [still] fall behind,” he said. “The national picture is a sobering one.”

On measures of precollegiate academic preparation—including high school completion, the rigor of math and science courses taken, student proficiency, and teacher quality—no more states received the top grade of A than in recent reports. But more states that had fared poorly in past reports were able to pull up their grades.

Six states—Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont—received A’s in the category of K-12 preparation. Most states got B’s or C’s, and only five states got D’s.

There were no F’s in the K-12-preparation category in this year’s report, unlike in the 2006 “Measuring Up,” which gave F’s to Louisiana and New Mexico.

But Joni E. Finney, the vice president of the center and the principal author of the state reports, noted in a telephone conference call before the report’s release that better preparation wasn’t being matched by college enrollments.

“We’re not seeing the enrollment that we should see, given the improvement in preparation over time,” said Ms. Finney, who is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education.

Mr. Callan attributed that gap to the erosion of affordability. “We have a lot of people whose college aspirations are fragile,” he said. Those people include adults who would be the first in their families to attend college, but who must balance the future opportunities presented by higher education against costs and the need to work, he said.

If colleges cut back on needed classes, Mr. Callan said, it doesn’t matter how well prepared students are academically: “They don’t hang around and wait for the budget to come back.”

College Leaders Criticized

Some at last week’s gathering laid blame for deteriorating affordability at the feet of higher education leaders.

“There’s been a deafening silence on this ... from the leadership of our colleges and universities,” said David W. Breneman, the chairman of the Measuring Up National Advisory Committee and a professor of the economics of education at the University of Virginia. “They have ducked it and have been defensive about it.”

Daniel J. Hurley, the director of state relations and policy analysis for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents 430 institutions, said of Mr. Breneman’s remark, “I totally understand where that comment comes from.”

He acknowledged that the price of attending college has risen—though less so at public institutions—but said his colleges’ presidents have been working hard to counteract a trend not of their own making.

“One would think that it would be the state lawmakers [who] would be most on the hot seat when it comes to costs, not the institutions themselves,” because most of public colleges’ funding comes from state treasuries, he said.

Mr. Carnevale, the Georgetown University economist, said of state funding of colleges and need-based financial aid: “Higher education in America is a cyclical industry—we’re generous on the way up and stingy on the way down.”

And given the grim state of the economy, he added, “we’ve come to a portion of the cycle in which higher education will suffer substantially.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as States Earn Poor Marks On College

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