06/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Access to Degrees -- Not Just Honorary Degrees

This is the celebratory season for colleges and universities. President Obama has just collected an honorary degree from Notre Dame, where a small band of protesters received more media attention than the thousands who listened respectfully to his careful, nuanced speech. Michelle Obama graced a freshly installed stage at the spanking new University of California at Merced, giving that Central Valley school recognition for its efforts as well as its potential.

The Obamas' regard for quality higher education is crystal clear. For the families of both the president and the first lady, access to a strong undergraduate and professional education was a sign of and ticket for cultural and economic success. I am a little older than our first couple, but when I started college my parents also viewed it as a key sign of their own economic achievements and a boost to whatever their son's aspirations turned out to be. My father was a furrier in New York, as was his father. The only thing my dad knew for certain about my future was that it shouldn't include being a furrier. Education at a very selective school (I went to Wesleyan University and then Princeton) would help ensure that.

The connection between higher education and social mobility was strengthened in this country after WWII. Expanding access to a college diploma was a national priority. As Andrew Delbanco recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, in the age cohort from 55-64, we lead the world in the percentage of the population with a college degree. But overall, we are now tied for tenth, and this is because younger groups have found it increasingly difficult to afford a four or even a two-year degree. In recent years Federal help has been paying a smaller and smaller percentage of college costs. Delbanco reports that in 1976 Pell Grants paid for 72 percent of costs, while by 2003 they made up only 38 percent. Recent legislation may improve things, but financial barriers have increasingly kept young people from pursuing a degree after high school.

Thus even before this economic crisis, higher education, once an important dimension of the dream of social mobility, was increasingly becoming a powerful instrument for reproducing social and economic privilege.

The Great Recession in which we find ourselves is making matters worse. Some of the highly selective colleges and universities remain "need blind," meaning that they accept students regardless of the applicant's ability to pay tuition and fees. But few institutions can afford to make this promise. At Wesleyan, where I now work, in order to remain need blind we have had to make cuts in many other administrative functions to compensate for the loss of endowment revenue due to the economic downturn. At public universities student fees have skyrocketed as states reduce their support for higher education even as private donations have become more difficult to come by.

Some need blind schools have sought to counteract these trends by actively recruiting students who might not find their own paths to our institutions. Wesleyan recently joined some other selective schools in working with Questbridge, an organization that matches highly qualified low-income students with appropriate universities. These students often receive full scholarships at institutions to which they might not have dared to apply given the high "sticker price" of more than $50k in tuition and fees. But given the economic downturn, not many schools today can afford to pay an organization to find students to whom they can then offer substantial scholarships. Most schools are trying to figure out how they can meet their ongoing financial aid obligations, or how they can fill the seats available with tuition paying students.

The best American universities and liberal arts colleges continue to produce specialized research and an approach to general education that inspire admiration (and imitation) around the world. But our system for financing higher education needs to be bolstered, and our commitment to offering an opportunity for continued education to qualified high school graduates re-affirmed. Growth in the American economy, and vitality in American culture, depend on knowledge and innovation -- not just on products and services. Unless access to higher education is improved, that growth and vitality are at risk.

I am delighted to see President and Mrs. Obama visit universities and celebrate their graduates. I long to see them inspire legislation that improves access to and the sustainability of institutions like those that have honored them this week.