College, No Longer the Economic Leveler

My program is beginning renewed focus on recruiting and retaining diverse students.    In these many conversations, it can be easy for even  those already committed to diversity to loose track of how much has changed since we were students ourselves.  Even on a campus as diverse as mine, the financial struggles of our students can be invisible to those of us making decisions about how we’ll structure program requirements.  We never hear from students who consider our programs but never apply, and students who leave “because I need to work for awhile” rarely stop on the way out to tell us about why they see few other choices.

So we rely on other voices.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Suzanne Mettler wrote

Ordinary young Americans who hoped college could be their route to a better future are the victims of a perfect storm of political winds

Mettler documents three main policy shifts working against low-income young people who believe in opportunity through education:

  1. While Pell grants covered 80% of the costs of a four year degree in the 70’s, they now cover only 31% of the average cost of a degree.
  2. State funding for higher ed has dwindled, leaving fewer resources for student support, even as tuition soars.
  3. Congressional deregulation has diverted financial aid to for-profits, where high tuition funnels to shareholders at tax-payers’ expense.

It is easy for faculty and staff to make vague reference to the “financial aid” available to our students without realizing how much financial aid has changed since many of us were students.  According to Mettler:

For those from the richest fifth, the annual cost of attending a public four-year college has inched up from 6 percent of family income in 1971 to 9 percent in 2011. For everyone else, the change is formidable. For those in the poorest fifth, costs at State U have skyrocketed from 42 percent of family income to 114 percent.

It’s a maxim in our program that our students can’t teach those they don’t know.

It’s growing more and more impossible to do planning in my program without knowing a great deal more about the financial constraints that many of our students now face.



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