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Jewish World Review
April 18, 2006
/ 20 Nissan 5766
Fairness and the Future
America's franchise on the future is endangered. We have triumphed because we are a democracy of free enterprise but also one that seeks to maintain equal opportunity. We do this out of a sense of justice and a pragmatic recognition that the realization of innate talents benefits the whole community. Higher education has been the key. We have had a love affair with it and have seen it open the door to the masses through a combination of philanthropy and state support. Today, however, sadly, that door is beginning to close.
Federal money and support, obviously, have been critical to the success of our higher-education system. The land-grant colleges were established in 1862 by an act of Congress sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill and expanded in 1890. They gave us our prowess in engineering and agriculture long before European colleges even acknowledged engineering as a profession. The GI Bill of 1944 allowed unparalleled access to college, 2 million veterans catapulting us into the great boom years of the 1950s. Add private philanthropy exceeding $25 billion last year alone that gave us universities like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, and Duke. Throw in state government subsidies for universities and community colleges, and you have a system of higher education that is the envy of the world, over 4,000 colleges and universities, with an investment per student that is twice the European average.
The trajectory of progress is now under threat, however. Government in the broadest sense is turning off the spigot. Many states are reducing their aid to students. And in many states fewer are enrolling. Two years ago, the National Report Card on Higher Education gave failing grades on affordability to 36 states.
Rich and poor. The gap between the cost and ability to pay grows every year. Tuition costs have been rising at double-digit rates for the past three years, for a cumulative increase of 33 percent triple the rate of the consumer price index. Over the past two decades, college tuition has increased by almost 300 percent, 15 times as much as clothing, almost four times as much as food, and 50 percent more than medical care. Forty years ago, it took two months of typical family income to pay for a year's tuition; today, it takes roughly six months.
The cuts in government subsidies that once allowed public colleges to keep tuitions low mean that middle-income citizens must either saddle themselves with a load of debt or scale back their college aspirations. Result: College life in America is being segregated not by race but by income. Since 1988, the share of students going to a four-year college, by socioeconomic quartile, is 64 percent from the highest-income quartile compared with 14 percent from the lowest. In the top-income quartile, 46 percent of 24-year-olds earn a bachelor's degree, compared with just 8 percent of those from the bottom-income quartile. Surprised? How could it be otherwise when it takes just 11 percent of family income to pay for college for the highest-income quartile, compared with 45 percent for the lowest-income quartile? The disparity is even worse at our most selective universities, where those chosen from the lowest socioeconomic quartile represent just 3 percent of the students, compared with 74 percent from the top quartile.
A decade ago, just 14 percent of freshmen came from families that earned more than $100,000 a year; today, the number is 32 percent and not all of that can be attributed to inflation.
The terms of financial aid have widened the gap between the elite and the less fortunate because loans, not grants, now make up almost 50 percent of tuition payments. And more and more aid is tied not to need but to merit. This means that those who get the best start in life get even more help than those who get the worst.
The squeeze is really on for middle-class kids. Harvard recently raised the qualifying floor for a free education to families that earn $60,000 a year. Will the middle class be priced out of the Ivy League? Are Ivy League schools once again to become the preserve for the rich and the subsidized poor?
Even worse, we are widening the gap further, given that education is the key to personal prosperity. A College Board survey shows that graduates with bachelor's degrees can expect to earn 70 percent more than a high school graduate over a lifetime; those with master's degrees can expect to earn twice as much; and those with professional degrees can expect to earn nearly 3 1/2 times as much.
There is no excuse for the failure of government at all levels to support public colleges so that every academically qualified student, regardless of income, can go to a college or university. If we fail to ensure that this is so, we will undermine an essential pillar of our democracy, just as we have done by allowing the decline of our inner-city schools. We must not allow our universities to become bastions of privilege, rather than instruments of social mobility.
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman