Commentary

How Unequal State Support Diminishes Degree Attainment

James Yang for the Chronicle

April 15, 2012

Most public-university leaders are making the mistake of letting a good crisis go to waste. Serial budget cuts and widespread skepticism are opportunities to redefine a university's public mission, yet most leaders are offering more of what we already have: more tuition increases, more low-wage adjuncts, more classroom technology, more external assessment, more administration, and more ritualized calls for transformative change. Instead, they need to define a new mission for higher education.

The new mission is simple: The public university must expand bachelor's attainment, and it must do this for the 50 percent to 75 percent of the population that has seen little degree of improvement over the past generation. It needs to bring poorer students to a high level of attainment, rather than giving them the second-class educations that led to employment in the mid-to-late 20th century but that no longer do. Above all, the public university must do these things for a future minority-majority America.

The fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups are not thriving economically or educationally. The two largest, Latinos and African-Americans, have nearly three times the poverty rate of whites, and Latinos have half and African-Americans two-thirds of whites' attainment rate for bachelor's degrees. As we know from data on the increased lifetime income earned by holders of those degrees, lower incomes and lower degree attainment go hand-in-hand. The economic struggles of Latinos and African-Americans owe much to an educational system in which the bottom half of the population by income has seen virtually no attainment increase in 40 years.

Given continuing austerity in state and federal budgets, where will public colleges get the additional money to improve overall educational quality? The main strategy has been to extract new revenues from students, either through general tuition increases or through supplemental fees for certain categories of students, particularly those from out of state. Both of these strategies are rapidly reaching their political and ethical limits. Public-university officials should instead reduce the damaging budget inequalities that have long suppressed educational resources for poorer students.

To get the process going, we will have to puncture one myth and tear off one Band-Aid.

The myth is that the American financial-aid system has failed the middle class but is doing a good job with poor students. This belief does not reflect actual research. Grants do not cover the cost of attendance. It has been estimated that only 40 percent of Pell Grant recipients get bachelor's degrees. College Board data show plainly that the poorest students, far from being protected from debt by grants, take on more debt than upper-middle-class students from households earning $120,000 per year. A particularly detailed statistical study published in Crossing the Finish Line, by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, shows that low-income students see their debt double over the course of their four years in college, directly threatening their college completion. Racial breakdowns show that two-thirds more black students than white students carry high student-loan debt.

This brings us to the Band-Aid. Major public universities remain competitive with their best private counterparts, but only by sacrificing some central functions, disciplines, and even campuses in order to preserve others. For example, the University of Michigan is often touted as proof that a state can withdraw public funds with no damage to quality or to the university's public mission. This is less true than is generally assumed even of the flagship campus at Ann Arbor, but the University of Michigan is a system of three campuses, and Dearborn, with its high proportion of Arab-American students, and Flint, with its large low-income and African-American student body, are held back by unequal fund distributions so that the flagship can keep moving forward.

Ann Arbor has a quarter to a third of the Pell Grant-eligible proportion of the other two campuses, receives almost twice the per-student revenues from tuition and state funds as do those campuses, and has about twice the graduation rate.

As a system, Michigan does a far better job of educating high-income, white, out-of-state students than it does of ensuring the degree completion of its own low-income, minority citizens. But this approach is exactly the unjust, sacrificial strategy that the country's economy and society can no longer afford.

The problem appears even in the University of California system, which has long been dedicated to equal development of its campuses. A recent state audit of university expenditures shows a rich man/poor man pattern of internal allocation of resources: For example, "on average, the UC budget allocated $19,529 to each UCLA student while the University of California at Santa Barbara received $12,309 per student." The state auditor also noted a correlation between lower levels of fund allocations and higher proportions of students from underrepresented minority groups.

The audit doesn't claim that UC's central administration has any racist intent. Nonetheless, the resource disparity, with causes that include different program mixtures and historic allocation patterns, results in less money going to the campuses with more underrepresented minority students. The outcome at the University of California system is similar to that at the University of Michigan system, although less noteworthy: The campuses that receive less money per student have lower graduation rates, which range from 89 percent at the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA to 64 percent at the University of California at Riverside.

In their response to the audit, university officials showed reluctance to redistribute resources, expressing concern that this would hurt the system's elite campuses. And yet it is precisely the effort to protect crown jewels through disproportionate financing that shorts the campuses that have a higher proportion of students from groups needing and deserving more investment in improved attainment.

The data point in only one direction. Years of cuts in public funds have created a contradiction between two of the public university's core missions: very high academic quality and racially nondiscriminatory academic outcomes. We can no longer protect the crown jewels at the expense of attainment for lower-income students and students of color. Both missions can be served only by reviving public financial support. An essential first step in the process is to gradually equalize the allocation of state and tuition funds with the explicit goal of increased degree attainment.

Christopher Newfield is a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.