Public Universities: Refocusing from Low Income to Non-Resident
Public higher education has been treated brutally in state budgeting since about 1980. States have been shifting their fiscal resources toward corrections (prisons, law enforcement, courts) and Medicare (health care for poor people) and away from everything else, especially public higher education. The resulting fiscal pressure on public universities has led directly to higher tuition charges to students.
Less obviously state universities have increased their pursuit of non-resident students who typically pay tuitions that average 271 percent of those paid by state resident students according to tuition date reported by the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board. Between 1994 and 2002 the share of first-time freshmen at public universities and 4-year colleges increased from 15.0 to 16.2 percent of all admitted freshmen. The non-resident share of freshmen increased in 36 of the 51 states (including DC), and decreased in the remaining 15 states. The states with the largest increases in non-resident shares of freshmen enrollments between 1994 and 2002 were Hawaii (+18.9%), Rhode Island (+16.0%) and Delaware (+14.3%).
Even less obvious than the shift from state residents to non-residents is the shirking of Pell Grant recipient enrollment by public universities. Low income students do not make much money for public universities desperately seeking alternative revenues to offset declining state support. Undergraduate Pell Grant recipients are probably more costly because they may come to campus less well prepared for the academic and social challenges of college enrollment. Between 1992 and 2003 the share of Pell Grant recipients in public universities increased by 2.6%, compared to an increase of 6.2% for all postsecondary education. Low income student enrollment growth has been shifted primarily to community colleges and to a lesser degree to proprietary schools.
The public university shift toward non-residents and away from low income students makes short term budget sense. It helps fill budget gaps created by inadequate state appropriations. But it also further disengages state universities from the needs of their states, such as the growing share of students in the K-12 pipeline that are on free or reduced price school lunches (family incomes below 185% of federal poverty level). State universities focused on higher educating the affluent and non-residents weaken their claim to state financial support. Both public universities and state budgeteers are locked in a death spiral of mutual self-destruction. Both should ponder the consequences of the decisions they have made over the last 25 years. Our future depends on very different choices.
Institutional Graduation Rates by Academic Selectivity
Institutional graduation rates are largely determined by the academic qualifications of the students they admit. More selective admissions institutions tend to have higher graduation rates than do less selective institutions as Astin pointed out more than a decade ago. The institutions that have higher or lower graduation rates than the rates predicted by the academic qualifications of their admitted freshmen differ from their peers in ways that offer useful insight into more and less successful institutional retention strategies such as academic and social integration, first-year experience and learning communities.
But there is another more troubling aspect to selective college admissions: the criteria used in selection (SAT, ACT, high school grades and class rank) are so highly correlated with family income that colleges could substitute the students' parents' federal income tax return for test scores, letters of recommendation, essays and campus visits to build similar entering freshman classes. These class-based admissions criteria tend to exclude students born into low income families. And this exclusion diminishes low income students' chances of ever graduating from college.
We have recently re-analyzed a data file on institutional graduation rates prepared by the Higher education Research Institute at UCLA. Astin and his colleagues gathered graduation status at 4 and 6 years on a sample of 56,818 freshmen who started college in 1994 at 262 baccalaureate-granting institutions. From this file Astin published Degree Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities (January 2005). We used this file to calculate graduation rates for freshmen from different family income levels at institutions with different levels of admissions selectivity. Controlling for SAT score our analysis finds that at all levels of family income and all levels of SAT scores graduation rates increase with admissions selectivity.
For example for 1994 freshmen from families with incomes of $0 to $25,000 and SAT scores between 1001 and 1099, six year graduation rates by institutional selectivity were:
Low selectivity 53.6%
Medium selectivity 61.3%
High selectivity 69.3%
This pattern holds across family income levels, SAT score ranges, and institutional types and controls.
My conclusion from these findings is that the exclusion of students from low income family backgrounds by class-based admissions criteria at selective admission colleges and universities diminishes the overall graduation prospects for students born into low income families. It also inflates the graduation prospects of students born into affluent families. In other words the current college admissions system is enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor.
Higher education has utterly failed to grasp the key role it now plays as the gatekeeper to the American middle class. The alternative paths to the middle class through family farming and manufacturing employment in earlier stages of economic development no longer exist. Who gets into higher education and who gets into selective admission colleges now determines who gets to most fully experience the American lifestyle. The class-based admissions criteria currently employed by selective admission colleges and universities are dividing educational opportunity along the line of inherited--not earned--privilege. I cannot imagine anything more destructive of what makes the United States uniquely a land of opportunity for the talented and ambitious--unique in the world and unique in history.