The Rising Price of Inequality
Dr. Juliet V. Garcia
June 25, 2010
Good morning. It is good to be back with the Advisory Committee again, and welcome to all of you here today. One of the most rewarding experiences that I have had in my professional life in higher education is having been a member and chair of this Committee.
During my tenure, I had the great honor of leading the effort on two of the Committee’s seminal reports: “Access Denied” in 2001 and “Empty Promises” in 2002. The report being released today, “The Rising Price of Inequality” is a worthy follow-on to those two reports and repeats their essential message.
The message is that, unfortunately, while progress has been made, we still have a long way to go to ensure equal educational opportunity.
When Congress reauthorized the Advisory Committee in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, it charged the Committee with reporting annually on the condition of college access and persistence for low- and moderate-income students. Congress delivered that charge with full knowledge that we, as a nation, have yet to meet our goal of equal access and persistence for needy students.
In both prior reports, “Access Denied” and “Empty Promises,” the message was very clear: that need-based aid was inadequate to ensure access to 4-year public colleges for low- and moderate-income high school graduates.
Well, sometimes the most important messages need to be repeated over and over, lest we forget them. This new report reminds us once again that large mismatches continue to exist between the aspirations and qualifications of low- and moderate-income high school graduates and where they are financially able to enroll in college.
These mismatches are triggered by increasing family financial concerns about college expenses and financial aid, and are shifting the initial enrollment of qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates away from four-year colleges. As we all know, such shifts in initial enrollment are very consequential because, so often, where qualified high school graduates from low- and moderate-income families are able to begin college largely determines their likelihood of success.
The report also warns that persistence appears to be declining. That, of course, magnifies the negative impact of enrollment shifts. The bottom line is that these two trends together: enrollments shifting away from four-year colleges along with declining persistence have greatly undermined bachelor’s degree completion over the last two decades and, if unchecked, will take an even greater toll this decade.
Against that somewhat discouraging backdrop, it is extremely important that we congratulate Congress and the Obama administration for the recent hard-fought-for increases in student aid. In particular, the increases in the Pell grant maximum award are especially welcome and appreciated. However, if past is prologue, these modest increases could fall victim very rapidly to increases in the cost of attendance at four-year colleges, especially given the economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves.
So, what is the answer? I think it is the same as it was a decade ago when I was on the Committee. Each member of the federal/state/institutional partnership must do its part. At every level—federal, state, and institutional—we must take every opportunity to increase need-based student aid. It is also critical for colleges to restrain prices, to the extent possible.
And we must never forget that maintaining financial access to four-year public colleges for qualified high school graduates is of paramount national policy importance.
I thank current members of the Committee for your dedication to this most important cause. I also thank all of you in the audience for your efforts as well. I think the nation’s future depends on hard work, and our efforts will be grandly rewarded.