The country’s most powerful engine of upward mobility is under assault.
Public colleges have an unmatched record of lofting their students into the middle class and beyond. For decades, they have enrolled teenagers and adults from modest backgrounds, people who are often the first member of their family to attend college, and changed their trajectories.
Over the past several years, however, 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.
The situation is particularly demoralizing because it’s happening even as politicians from both parties spend more time trumpeting their supposedly deep concern for the American dream. Yet government policy is hurting, not fostering, many people’s chance to earn the most reliable ticket to a good job and a better life.
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The decline of economic diversity at top public colleges is the clearest pattern in The Times’ third annual ranking of leading colleges – the roughly 170 nationwide with a five-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent. (Yes, you can be disappointed that so few colleges clear that bar.)
The ranking, called the College Access Index, is based on how many low- and middle-income students colleges graduate and how much those students must pay. The index is a measure of which top institutions are doing the most to promote the American dream.
Many are doing less than they once did. 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.
Some of the biggest declines have been in the University of California system, which has long been the most economically diverse place in elite higher education. On the San Diego campus five years ago, 46 percent of freshmen received Pell grants. Last year, the share had dropped to 26 percent. When I first saw that number in The Times database, I figured it was a typo.
It wasn’t. The United States is investing less in college education, at the same time that the globalized, digital economy has made that education more important than ever. Gaps between college graduates and everyone else are growing in one realm of society after another, including unemployment, wealth and health.
Given these trends, the declines in state funding are stunning. It’s as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.
Since 2008, states’ per-student spending on higher education has fallen 18 percent nationwide, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The cuts have occurred in both blue and red states, with somewhat larger ones in Republican-run states. States made deep cuts after the financial crisis and have since failed to restore funding, choosing instead to cut taxes or spend money on health care, prisons or other areas.
“States are making it much more difficult for their residents to get high-quality higher education,” Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute said. “They are causing their institutions to charge more, to take more out of state students, to cut quality. It’s very shortsighted.” That’s exactly the right word, because spending on education often more than pays for itself in the long run.
The budget cuts affect every realm of higher education, with some of the biggest damage happening at community colleges and less selective four-year institutions. These campuses enroll the great majority of lower-income college students. Yet flagship public campuses – like those in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Boulder, Colorado; and Gainesville, Florida – are important to upward mobility too, given the success of their graduates.
In the past few years, many flagships have begun to recruit more upper-income students from outside their state, including from overseas. Those students don’t qualify for in-state tuition or for much financial aid – and thus help bolster the colleges’ budgets.
Often, college officials describe the strategy in different terms. They say that they are trying to lift their campus’ national profile, not to mention its U.S. News ranking. To do so, they must recruit a larger pool of students with high test scores than exists in their own state.
But the net result, to put it bluntly, is bad for the country. Top state universities are displacing impressive low-income students, who have often overcome troubled neighborhoods and high schools. Many of those students then enroll instead in colleges with fewer resources and higher dropout rates. In the process, the higher-education system becomes a bit less meritocratic.
The story in California is a bit more nuanced, but still disappointing, particularly given the state university’s history. Since its founding, during a burst of national investment during and just after Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, no other university in the world has combined academic excellence and broad access so well.
John Aubrey Douglass, an education scholar, describes that combination as “the California idea.” The top five colleges in this year’s College Access Index ranking are still University of California campuses: Irvine, Santa Barbara, Davis, San Diego and Los Angeles. Berkeley ranks ninth, while the private colleges in the top 10 are Amherst, Pomona and Harvard.
Yet even as California remains a leader, it is also inching away from its legacy.
With state support down, university leaders have decided that their least bad option is to enroll more high-income students. In only four years, undergraduate enrollment in the University of California system has risen 15 percent, or by 27,000 students. The expansion has allowed the colleges to continue enrolling similar numbers of lower-income students, rather than displacing those students, but it has created severe crowding.
“It’s pretty bad,” Gabriel Schneider, an editor of The Triton student newspaper on the San Diego campus, told me. Single dormitory rooms have been turned into doubles and even triples. Libraries and other common spaces are packed. The university tried to convert an art gallery into a classroom, only to back down after an uproar.
On the Davis campus, near Sacramento, the crowding has particularly harmed less affluent students, because apartment rents have jumped. “The housing shortage in Davis is just horrible,” said Scott Dresser, a fourth-year student. Some students are now commuting from Woodland, 10 miles away, said Eli Flesch, another fourth-year student.
What would be a better solution?
For one thing, universities should be scouring their budgets, looking for spending that’s less important to their mission than economic diversity and meritocracy are. There is no shortage of suspects: struggling academic programs, spiffy recreation centers, expensive sports teams, bureaucratic bloat.
But such cuts are not the only answer, even if some governors and state legislators claim otherwise. This country should also be investing more of its resources in education.
A century ago, it did precisely that, making high school universal and making possible the American century. Today’s economy demands many more college graduates than the country currently has. Producing them won’t be free. But it will be worth it.
The alternative – which is the path we’re now on – is just about the worst economic-development strategy imaginable.