Letters to the Editor

We Spend Too Little, Not Too Much, on Chicago State U. Students

April 24, 2011

To the Editor:

While some of the comments on Richard Vedder's "Chicago State U. Costs More Than Northwestern" (The Chronicle, March 7) addressed his inappropriate use of Delta Cost Project data, the difficulties with his analysis extend beyond the data. There is no doubt that Mr. Vedder's calculations are incorrect; what is really distressing is that he chose to compare these institutions at all and in a fashion that puts colleges trying to address the needs of a primarily low-income, first-generation, nontraditional population at a distinct disadvantage. A sample of factors omitted in Mr. Vedder's analysis:

Less than half of Chicago State students are included in the full-time, first-time graduation rate that Mr. Ved­der cites, compared with nearly all students at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Many students come to Chicago State as jun­iors from community-college programs; their performance (over half the students!) is ignored.

At least 30 percent of Chicago State students transfer out of the university, compared with virtually none at Northwestern or the University of Chicago. Others do drop out, or at least "drop down" to part-time status. We know from experience with our need-based Monetary Award Program recipients that many of these transfers, "dropdowns," and "dropouts" come in response to financial pressures. Often, the four-year institution simply becomes too expensive. Over two-thirds of Chicago State's students qualify for Pell Grants; less than 10 percent do at Northwestern or the University of Chicago. Students who transfer to other, less expensive institutions and complete programs are not part of Mr. Vedder's calculations.

It is not, however, always the cost of college that becomes overwhelming. Over half of Chicago State students are older than 25; many have families to care for and support, often on very limited incomes. A broken furnace, major car repairs, or a sick child can all derail, at least temporarily, the goal of college completion for these students. Others never really quit, but maintain part-time status for eight or more years to complete their programs. These completers are not considered in Mr. Vedder's calculations.

It is fairly easy to make the case that we spend far too little on these students, not that we spend too much. We can lower the cost of a degree at Chicago State and other schools with similar populations by providing these students with adequate financial resources to mount the serious financial barriers that often force them to leave. With the high cost of all col­leges these days, we can't afford to lose students halfway through, especially since they will most likely leave with considerable student-loan debt.

I'm not ignoring the obvious: Chicago State students are not as well prepared for college as Northwestern or University of Chicago students. After decades of focusing on postsecondary access and choice for low-income students, Chicago State and other Illinois institutions serving this population do need to better address the unique academic as well as the financial problems of their students and refocus their efforts on getting students through their programs.

Chicago State's student-completion rates will likely never rival rates at Northwestern or the University of Chicago, nor should they be expected to. Education will always be a riskier proposition at Chicago State than at a premier research institution. But the returns can be great. It is institutions such as Chicago State that are ushering low-income, first-generation students into a middle-class future and into the new jobs that Illinois requires to be competitive for the rest of the century.

Andrew A. Davis
Executive Director
Springfield, Ill.