Last Sunday, The New York Times had a front-page story on the problems faced by students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. While the story highlighted the specific problems of three minority females, my wife the university professor sees the same problems played out by white students in a state university with a very small minority population. Despite an apparent proliferation of loan and aid programs for students of modest means or less, the graduation gap between economically poor students and those of more affluent means is now wider than it was thirty years ago. Although the graduation rates of most ethnic/economic subgroups have improved, the rates for those of means have improved far more than that of those from poorer backgrounds.
Why has this happened? There are a number of reasons, and the Times article, frankly, didn’t emphasize nearly enough some of the root causes. The principal reason, from what my wife and I see, is that the growth of tuition has outstripped the growth of available grants and scholarships. The reason for the growth of tuition at state universities is not, contrary to popular opinion, because of high salaries for full-time faculty, not at a time when most state institutions have been freezing salaries or holding raises to one or two percent, or reducing full-time professors and replacing them with part-time adjunct faculty, but because for almost a generation, state legislatures have been reducing the funding of their public institutions at the same time as enrollments have continued to increase. Higher enrollments require more buildings and larger classes, or more classes taught by less qualified instructors… and, most important, higher tuition.
At my wife’s university, and at all the public institutions in the state, funds for scholarships and grants, even federal grants, have not kept up with the cost of tuition. If colleges and universities offer full-tuition and room-and-board scholarships, then the number of available scholarships goes down as tuition rises. If they offer the same number of scholarships, then those scholarships no longer cover tuition and room-and-board. Either way, that means that economically disadvantaged students must either borrow funds or find part-time or full-time work. My wife has watched student after student become swamped with debt or spending so much time working that they cannot spend the time to study and to succeed academically. In addition, all too many have other problems created by their past, such as poor study habits and even worse judgment. More affluent students also have these problems, but they often have personal safety nets, such as parents who can support them while they waste too much time learning with bad study habits and behavior that detracts from academic success.
In addition, in many fields, merely taking classroom courses isn’t enough for future success. For example, in the hard sciences, students need to take laboratory courses, and those are invariably later in the day – and often students who work find themselves in an impossible situation. If they try to follow an educational path that would pay more in the future, they can’t work the hours they need to pay for that education, yet taking a more “standard” curricula ends up giving them a degree with a major in a field that is already glutted. The majority of students who succeed in music and the performing arts – and many do, despite the rhetoric – are those who not only take the classes, but who do all the extra activities, which include performing and rehearsing long hours, often without credit. This becomes almost impossible for students who are entirely self-supporting, except for the one or two that come along every few years who are truly brilliant and gifted, and even for them, it is close to impossible.
But each year the situation has become worse as the legislature funds less and less, and tuition climbs, and professors’ incomes are frozen, and more adjuncts are hired, and poorer students work longer and longer hours and get deeper and deeper in debt.
All of this doesn’t even take into account the fact that primary and secondary schools are failing to instill certain basic skills required for both academic and occupational success. When more than a third of all students graduating from secondary schools do not have the writing skills to compose – without electronic aids – a single coherent paragraph, and when the majority lack any semblance of analytical skills, it’s no wonder that students who are preoccupied with finding the money to even attend college are dropping out or failing in huge numbers.
But the great debate remains about how federal and state taxes are too high.