06/23/2013 03:00 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2013

Mixed Messages on College Access

Calls for broader access to higher education for historically marginalized populations -- low income students, African American, Hispanic and American Indian students -- is a constant theme in the educational rhetoric of leading public officials at the federal, state and local levels. But actions speak louder than words, and in the last few years public policy choices have increasingly betrayed those noble calls for equal opportunity.

Equal opportunity is meaningless if students cannot afford the cost of college, which is not only tuition price but other associated costs like books, transportation, housing and food, all adding up to the "total cost of attendance." Historically, public colleges and universities were supposedly the gateways of opportunity for all citizens regardless of financial circumstances. At one time, the in-state tuition prices for state institutions were minimal, making the dream of a college degree possible for millions in the postwar generations.

In the last few years, states have rapidly divested in higher education, driving up tuition prices across the country as public institutions have scrambled to fill the funding gaps caused by the retrenchment policies of governors and state legislators. Many public universities, not just the flagships, are now beyond the reach of many low income students.

Ironically, some private universities like mine, Trinity, now enroll significantly more low income students than many state universities -- we figure out how to make college affordable, but we cannot possibly fill the gap left by the rapidly-declining number of affordable seats in public schools. (At Trinity this year, our median family income is about $25,000, compared to more than $100,000 for some public institutions in surrounding states.)

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the retrenchment in federal financial aid for at-risk populations is accelerating, threatening to dash the dreams of millions of students who are the best hope of their families to reverse generations of poverty and marginalization.

The federal financial aid retrenchment is a slow-motion erosion of support accomplished in small legislative or regulatory actions that went largely unnoticed until the effects hit the unsuspecting students. Consider these actions to limit federal financial aid just in the last two years:

  • Parent Plus Loans: decisions by mid-level staff at the U.S. Department of Education led to a tightening of rules for Parent Plus loans, the federal loans that parents can take out to help their children to pay for college. The net result has had a disproportionately negative impact on African American students whose families tend to be disproportionately impacted by poverty and, therefore, credit risk. An article in the Washington Post revealed that for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, this retrenchment resulted in a 47% decline in Parent Plus loan recipients, about $150 million. But HBCU students are not the only ones affected. For my students at Trinity, who are predominantly low income African America and Latina women, the Parent Plus loan volume declined by nearly 50% from 2012 to 2013.
  • Pell Grants: in an action that did not gain much public notice at the time, the federal government also recently decided to reduce the number of semesters for which a student could receive Pell Grants from 18 to 12 semesters, and the reduction is retroactive for all students regardless of when they began college and how close they might be to completion. Particularly for adult women whose college attendance patterns include interruptions to raise children and care for parents, this kind of arbitrary retroactive rule slams the gate shut on their ability to complete their degrees.
  • Federal Student Loan Interest Rates: even if Congress is able to muster the good sense to pass some legislation to stop the Stafford Student Loan interest rate from doubling on July 1, chances are that the choices made will not be in the best interest of the low income students who are the population currently served by Stafford Loans. Pegging the Stafford interest rates to market rates might sound good in a low interest rate environment, but the exposure to market volatility and the uncertainty of the payment schedule poses grave risk for the most vulnerable borrowing populations, the low income students who often have little help navigating the mind-boggling web of the financial aid system.
  • D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants: an issue more localized to District of Columbia students, but mirroring national trends in retrenchment of student financial assistance, Congress has arbitrarily cut the amount of money available for D.C. TAG grants, and in response, local officials are contemplating choices about how to redistribute the smaller pot that could have very negative effects on the most at-risk students in the city.

We're reading a lot these days about the impending demographic changes in this nation. In 2010, births of white babies were a minority for the first time. This year, for the first time, deaths in the white population surpassed births. Meanwhile, the census forecast is for a nonwhite majority by 2043, perhaps sooner.

In higher education, the Hispanic population will grow by 42% by 2021, and African Americans by 25% (NCES Projections in Education 2013). These populations, historically marginalized and, in too many places, deeply impoverished and suffering the poisonous effects of wretched K-12 schools, are the future citizens and leaders of this great nation. But the educational achievement gap is widening for these populations, as a Lumina Foundation study recently documented.

Disinvesting in federal and state financial aid for low income students, particularly students of color, will further damage the already-bleak college completion rates for these students who are enrolled in college, and will block access for the rising tide of students of color who will need even more support if they are to enter college and complete degrees successfully.

Let's stop kidding ourselves about the real cost of higher education. The nation will pay a huge price in the future if we continue to retrench on educational investments today. Ambitious goals to ensure a majority of Americans with postsecondary credentials by 2025 must be more than empty rhetoric. We need to show the new populations of students the money in the same measure as the Baby Boomer generation who reaped considerable personal as well as communal benefits from the postwar public investment in higher education.