Public universities move away from supporting poor students

State funding for American public universities has been declining for a generation.  The New York Times catches on updates us on the latest data.

David Leonhardt (Twitter) cites the Times’ recent scorecard of higher education and poor people’s access to it, reminding us that “most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically.”  

At the public colleges in the index, the average share of last year’s freshman class receiving Pell grants — which means they typically come from the bottom half of the income distribution — fell to 21.8 percent, from 24.3 percent in 2011-12. Campuses with declining economic diversity include the Universities of Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin, as well as Binghamton, Ohio State and Rutgers.

By comparison, the Pell share has recently held roughly constant at top private colleges, around 16 percent.

Leading the shift away from poor folks are University of California system campuses, like UCSD:

On the San Diego campus five years ago, 46 percent of freshmen received Pell grants. Last year, the share had dropped to 26 percent.

enrollment of Pell awardees_2015-2017

Be sure to scroll halfway down the article for the infographic of individual US states and their changing support since 2009.  It’s too big and rich to copy over here.

One crucial effect of this campus shift from encouraging poor people to rich folks is social:

most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically. Many public universities have responded by enrolling fewer poor and middle-class students — and replacing them with affluent students who can afford the tuition.

 I’ve seen this at many colleges and universities.  Administrators and faculty have described the transition, and, to their credit, many agonize over it.  It’s heartbreaking to hear deans and professors who tell me about their decision to go into education to serve the underserved, and how that opportunity is shrinking.

Readers know I keep hammering the theme of income inequality and its impacts on higher education.  This is one dimension of that.

There are, alas, a whole strong of problems with Leonhardt’s account.  He doesn’t cite the major research on this topic, neither Chris Newfeld’s important books (most recently) nor Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price (our reading).  Instead he refers to a recent book on Californian higher ed as a unique case, and focuses a chunk of his article on that state’s arguably anomalous situation.*

And his suggested solutions (kudos for offering some) are iffy.  For example, Leonhardt suggests that “universities… [scour] their budgets, looking for spending that’s less important to their mission than economic diversity and meritocracy are… [including] spiffy recreation centers, expensive sports teams, bureaucratic bloat.”  Each of these has problems.

“spiffy recreation centers” – those can be enormously expensive.  However, what proportion of campuses actually haven’t spent much on these?  Moreover, the amenities arms race persists because no school wants to disarm and risk losing students at a time when, as I keep reminding everyone, enrollments are down and financial pressures are high.

“expensive sports teams” – great idea.  Political suicide at most campuses.

“bureaucratic bloat” – Leonhardt links to an interesting example, again from California.  But he misses the point that a lot of “bureaucratic bloat” actually has good causes: expanded technology staff as those needs have exploded; many student support staff, as student needs soar and competition heats up; staff to meet regulatory needs; staff to help with fundraising as public support declines.

The author also recommends that universities commit queen sacrifices.  Among his list of money-snarfing “suspects” are “struggling academic programs”.  Leonhardt doesn’t specify which ones, nor describe how to go about this without riffing faculty members, not to mention reducing student access to curricula and career paths.

He also thinks that “[t]his country should also be investing more of its resources in education.”  A noble idea, but, as with sports, one that utterly lacks political traction.

Speaking of politics, I’m intrigued by how the article doesn’t mention party politics.  That makes a quiet sense, perhaps, as both Republicans and Democrats defund higher ed with roughly parallel enthusiasm (check the national chart and compare red versus blue states). It also doesn’t describe policy or ideological reasons for the funding shift.  I’d mention neoliberalism and demographics are two reasons, but think the New York Times is uncomfortable mentioning the former, and is awkward with the latter.

Moreover, there just isn’t much political interest in refunding public higher ed.  To begin with, the feds, well.  More importantly, state politicians see competing interests, and many have stronger political power, like pensions (retirees donate and vote more than anyone else), health care (cf recent political turmoil), the penal system (cf recent crime panic), and other services (think of road repair in northern states, for example). Those competing interests aren’t going away – indeed, demographics and policy suggests pensions and health care will become ever more demanding, financially and politically. Higher ed?  Not so much.

So is sum we have a flawed account wrapped around useful data, identifying a powerful trend everyone interested in higher ed needs to have been talking about yesterday.

What should we do?

*The book is called The California Idea, and seems to use that phrase to describe that state’s commitment to public support for broad access to higher education.  But doesn’t that really stem from the Wisconsin Idea, which predates it?  What happened to Wisconsin in this article, dropped because it’s flyover country, or due to that state’s new status as a red state, unlike Ca.?  I suspect the former, as the Times’ own data shows North Dakota and Wyoming as exceptions to the rule, but the text never mentions them:

High plains states and higher ed funding

Yellow columns represent spending reductions, while gray show increases.

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2 Responses to Public universities move away from supporting poor students

  1. actualham says:

    One of the (many, many) really eye-opening parts of Newfield’s book for me had to do with how public higher ed leaders (admins, presidents, etc) so quickly abandoned any effort to make a case for public higher education. It is infuriating to watch it all unfold in his narrative, but at the same time, he basically argues that we should try– from within public higher ed– to build that case: with specificity, with economic data, and with a clear set of guiding definitions of the “public good” and “public goods.” It was heartbreaking to see his evidence of how we dropped the ball on this, but it also gives me some hope that if we develop national leadership on the value of public, we could still save our wrecked system. That leadership can come from inside of public higher ed. We certainly can’t expect it to come from outside if we won’t or can’t articulate our mission and value ourselves.

  2. Pingback: On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018 | Bryan Alexander

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