How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education

Yes, that reads exactly how it is supposed to read and the headline (and accompanying research) came to me from a group called Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY. ( . As I wrote in my last blog, facts are good things. Facts tell a story and the best stories, I believe, are ones supported by those pesky things we call facts.

From 1980 to 2011, deliberately implemented social policy reversed a national commitment to higher education that began during the Civil War. Increasing student demand has been met with federal and state policy choices that have sharply restricted access, choice, persistence and attainment of higher education. These outcomes were predictable (and indeed predicted).

Not all students have been impacted equally. In fact, certain groups have been explicitly exempted from the consequences of the policies (see Georgia’s HOPE).

OK, how about some facts?

1. In 1989, the share of K-12 students approved for free and reduced lunch was 31%. By 2010, it had risen to 51%. These students obviously require increased financial aid to attend college.

2. The U.S. has one of the highest after-tax income inequalities of any industrial nation in the world.

3. The share of government funding of higher education has decreased from 60% in 1978 to 37% in 2009.

4. The share paid for by families increased from 30% to 50%.

5. State fiscal support has declined 40% overall, but the rate of decline varies tremendously state to state. Georgia, one of the very few states in the nation which provides no need-based support, saw its share of support decline only 15%.

6. Only nine states provide need based aid to at least half those receiving federal Pell Grants (only the neediest Americans are eligible for a Pell Grant).

7. Nine other states provide need based aid to less than five percent of those receiving Pell (with Georgia ingloriously being one of those nine).

8. Until 1994, 90% of state funded aid was awarded on the basis of financial need. And then came HOPE. Other states, mainly in the south, followed Georgia’s lead and over the next ten years, the share of state aid going to financially needy students dropped from 90% to 72%.

9. The story on the federal side is not any prettier. The share of federal aid awarded on the basis of need has declined from 86% in 1986 to 47% in 2010 (mostly as a result of a shift from grants to loans and the deterioration of the Pell Grant’s purchasing power).

10. Public four-year universities are now enrolling nearly 80% of their students from the highest income families in the country.

So, that’s the story. During the last three decades (and it is getting worse, not better) the United States has demonstrated how to limit higher education opportunity for those most in need of that opportunity through clear and well-defined policy choices. Those least dependent on public support have faired quite well. The burden of the restrictions has been born by families from the bottom half. Again, see All of this blog is attributed to them.

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2 Responses to How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education

  1. Jim says:

    Hi Larry,

    I am a big fan of access….but one thing that is left out of these sort of fact lists is the size of the population being served and how it has changed over time. Could it be that the starting line for setting up aid programs (i.e. the percentage of costs covered, or the percentage of people covered, etc.) is no longer feasible due to extremely high demand?

    For example, social security was set up assuming a certain balance between those that earn and those that draw. The actual numbers of each is different today than originally envisioned, so a change to the formula is necessary. As they say, you can’t get 10 pounds of doo-doo in a 5 pound bag. The number of people in line for social security has become too big to support using the original assumptions.

    Could this be the same dynamic in higher ed…is the pool of participants simply too big to support using yesterday’s formulas? Or maybe the present ratios are, in fact, okay considering the volume who wish to participate.

    Love the blog!

    Your buddy,

    • petrelwords says:

      Here’s my take. Georgia’s HOPE and the programs that have copied it are terrific examples of wrong-headed public policy. Georgia devotes a massive amount of money to support public higher education, with the vast majority of it going to non-needy families who otherwise could afford a college education. No need-test at all. And as I noted, Georgia is one of those states that has decreased its higher ed subsidy only a little. The well-off continue to benefit in the hardest of times. Has the higher ed dynamic shifted? For sure. Can or should everyone attend a four year institution? I don’t think so. But I do think that everyone ought to have an equal shot at that opportunity and our public policy ought to encourage, not discourage, them.

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