For my family, as for millions of others, the fabric of prosperity was woven with college degrees. My dad immigrated from India to get a doctorate in engineering; he stayed because it helped him get a job and visa. My mother and my grandparents sought out education as the path to a better life. And from a young age, they impressed the importance of a college degree on my brother and me.
Today, a bachelor’s degree is increasingly a prerequisite for a stable job with a salary that can support a family. Estimates suggest that will become even more true as technology and automation continue to transform our nation’s economy. That’s why glaring inequities between students of different races and family income backgrounds in earning a bachelor’s degree are so deeply troubling. While all groups are more likely to hold those degrees now than in the past, the gaps between groups are widening.
If higher education equity means Latino and black students should earn bachelor’s degrees at the same rate as white students, we are further from that goal than we were in 1980. Indeed, those gaps have widened.
If higher education equity means top colleges, including public institutions, should reflect the racial composition of graduating high school classes in their states or the nation, we are further from that goal than we were in 1980.
If college degrees should be a measure of intellectual ability rather than family income, youth today are further from that goal than past generations. Gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment between rich and poor have widened and richer students with low GPAs are more likely to attend college than poorer students with higher GPAs.
Why are those gaps widening? Higher education remains the best way for a low-income student to climb the economic ladder, but the way we fund colleges is deepening inequality.
College costs have been shifted in recent decades from state and federal support to student tuition, often paid by federal loans. That’s especially true for the three-quarters of students educated at public colleges, which have increasingly turned to tuition and fees (and the wealthier students who can pay) to make ends meet.
The results are in the news every day: tuition up 400 percent over 30 years, skyrocketing student debt of $1.5 trillion; defaults projected to hit 40 percent of all student-borrowers, 70 percent of African-American borrowers, and even 20 percent of African-American bachelor’s degree graduates.
There are steps we can take to get us back on the road to a more accessible and affordable postsecondary education.
First, we need to figure out how to restore state funding for colleges and universities — and link that aid to lower tuition and admitting more low-income students and students of color. Better-resourced colleges, especially public colleges, should ensure they enroll and support Latino and African-American students in numbers representative of their states’ populations.
To that end, colleges should decide whether to continue practices like legacy admission, often an explicit leg up for wealthier students with equivalent academic qualifications compared with students from poorer families. Federal policies like the ASPIRE Act, sponsored by Senators Chris Coons, D-Del., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would give colleges an incentive for enrolling and graduating more low-income students.
Second, we need to support state changes that simultaneously improve public return on investment and increase racial and economic equity. For example:
• Studies show that in today’s complicated and turf-conscious two-year college to four-year college transfer system, students lose credits and less than 20 percent get to a bachelor’s degree. But there are places where the system works: a third of UCLA’s incoming students are transfer students as a result of its extensive support at community colleges and on its campus.
• CUNY’s ASAP program gives students better class scheduling, targeted advising, and financial support for transit and books. The program is so effective in graduating more students it actually reduces how much the public spends for each graduate. But states haven’t figured out how to spread the program to more community colleges.
• In recent months, the federal government has begun to step back from regulating for-profit college programs that generate lots of debt, take in lots of public dollars, but leave graduates without good career prospects. States can step into that breach, improving student consumer protections and reducing student loan defaults.
Ultimately, states need to address the underlying causes of growing tuition and widening racial and economic gaps. That won’t be easy. But without tackling these root causes, higher education will leave a generation of college students in debt, widen the gaps in our society, and leave the United States less competitive with other major economies.