Here’s a wild thought: states could help the poorest colleges and universities

How can America help students complete undergraduate degrees?  The “completion agenda” (for example) has driven a lot of discussion and experimentation of late, especially as the student loan debt crisis (which especially hurts those don’t get a degree) continues.

keep-calm-and-rebuild-public-university_juan-gonzaloBridget Terry Long offers an interesting proposal.  In a new paper (pdf) she suggests  a new approach: that state governments spend more money on the poorest public colleges and universities.

Let’s take a look.

Long begins by observing that states historically prefer to spend money on the wealthiest public institutions, and those enrolling the highest performing students.  This pattern holds even as per-student support declined.

For example,

After standardizing the amount of funds by the number of FTE students, public four-year institutions receive more in state appropriations than community colleges, with the state’s flagship institution receiving the most.

For instance,

In a study of state appropriation levels in 1991, I found that the most selective public four-year college in California (i.e., the University of California-Berkeley) received almost nine times more in state subsidies per student than the two-year community colleges…

This state funding pattern links up with the economics of students and their academic choices:

More affluent students, who often attend higher quality kindergarten through grade 12 schools, are much more likely to attend a state’s public flagship institutions and other universities. Meanwhile, low-income students are more likely to attend less selective, four-year or community colleges.

Why does this matter?

[O]ur higher education system results in allocating the smallest state subsidies to our most vulnerable students…[T]here is some indication that state funding is going disproportionally to the colleges and universities that serve the students who are best prepared academically to succeed…

This policy choice, widespread across American higher education, in blue states and red alike, might help us understand why the poorest people have the hardest time winning degrees.

Having identified a problem, Long suggests a solution.  “[I]f the goal is to improve educational attainment in the future, then we need to pay special attention to institutions with lower persistence and degree-completion rates.”

university-of-north-alabama-building

States need to change up their higher ed allocations:

[C]hanging funding structures to increase resources to public institutions overall as well as address current inequities for schools that serve many struggling students could help the country make significant progress toward the goal of increasing the number of adults who have a postsecondary credential…

Long then offers a series of policy alternatives that could embody this.

What do you think?  Would financial constraints yield a political problem of defunding the wealthier schools to make this happen?  Is there a role for federal support?

PS: I was struck by some of the additional data Long provided when discussing the decline of state support for public higher education.

state-support-1987-2013_long

It’s not news (or it shouldn’t be!), but these are some especially sharp notes to sound:

From 2008 to 2016, all but four states experienced reductions in state spending per student after adjusting for inflation, and the reductions have been staggering in a number of states, the top five being Arizona (−55.6 percent), Louisiana (−39.1 percent), South Carolina (−37.0 percent), Alabama (−36.2 percent), and Pennsylvania (−33.3 percent). [emphasis added]

And this: “Since 1980, state and local appropriations to higher education have declined from being 50 percent of revenue for public, degree-granting institutions to only 37 percent by 2000.”

(link via Inside Higher Ed; “Keep Calm” by Juan Gonzaloa; University of North Alabama hall from Wikipedia)

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