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Who Can Afford College?

The Economics Behind Access I am always surprised and saddened by how little those who need college the most know about how to get inside its doors. Recently, I met with a group of Boston high-school juniors and seniors to talk about how to prepare, apply, and pay for college. This audience is very different from the graduate students, faculty, researchers, and policymakers with whom I regularly interact, but in many ways, my discussion of the importance of college had a greater impact on them than on any other group that I address. Some of the students reacted with optimism; one student happily proclaimed that her SAT scores qualify her for admission to a local university. Other students felt quite discouraged. Several worried about whether they could secure enough financial aid to pay for tuition. I shared information about all of the programs that can help them afford college, but found it difficult to quiet their fears. It is hard to hide my frustration that our country does not do more to help students like these gain access to higher education.
Assistant Professor Bridget Terry Long (© 2003 Karlyn Morissette
There is a basic notion in this country of opportunity: your parents’ income (or lack thereof) should not dictate your station in life. It has become increasingly clear that the only way to make this a reality is through education—from kindergarten through college. Higher education is now the gatekeeper to a middle-class income and standard of living. There is no question that the returns of a college degree are substantial. From the viewpoint of strictly earnings potential, it is the million-dollar decision. Those with a college degree on average make $1 million more over the course of their lifetimes than those without a degree. However, institutions of higher learning are more than just places to get degrees. Colleges offer second chances to students who leave the K–12 system unprepared to do advanced work. Estimates suggest that approximately 40 percent of college students require remediation in English or math; more and more, our society relies upon colleges to meet this need. Colleges have also accepted the burden of educating adults who require further training in order to keep their jobs or find new ones after being laid off. Aside from the lifelong financial benefits of a college education, there are many nonmonetary benefits associated with it as well. It is disappointing, therefore, that during national efforts to expand financial aid, the importance of the basic issue of access has been lost. The federal government has limited funds that must be delegated strategically for the largest possible return. Do we want to use those funds to deal with a first-order question—getting people into college so that they can gain skills to support themselves and their families—or a second-order question—making students who would attend regardless of aid more comfortable with the expense? Because higher education plays such a crucial role in deciding who will and will not succeed, I would argue that the answer is obvious.
“Do we want to use [government] funds to deal with...getting people into college so that they can gain skills to support themselves and their families or...making students who would attend regardless of aid more comfortable with the expense?”
Given the growing importance and benefits of higher education to so many facets of society, one might believe that providing access to college for low-income students would be a top governmental concern. That’s not the case. In the last decade, priorities shifted to affordability for those with middle- and upper-class incomes rather than access for all. In 1992, the financial need calculation changed, thereby allowing upper-class families to qualify for federal support. With the Georgia HOPE Scholarship in 1993, states began to promote merit-based aid programs that favored upper-class students. In 1997, the federal government created tax credits for higher-education expenses. Because the credits are nonrefundable and low-income families have little tax liability, almost no one with an income below $30,000 qualifies for them. Most beneficiaries during the last three years have made over $50,000 and even up to $75,000. Undoubtedly, college is a burdensome expense for almost every family to manage. Even so, it is disheartening that the largest public financial-aid package in 40 years has not increased access for low-income families. Access, as an issue, falls further down the priority list as government funds dwindle. With growing deficits, legislators have been quick to cut higher-education budgets. During the last year, tuition levels at public, four-year colleges have increased nearly 10 percent on average. This is the first time in decades that the growth in the price of public colleges—traditionally institutions with the mission of providing college access—has outpaced that of private institutions. If this trend continues, those with the greatest need for skills will be shut out of the system. Education is truly the most equitable means to enabling our nation’s citizens to become accountable for themselves. Without it, state and federal governments will eventually have to pay the price by increasing their support for social services and welfare. The changing demographics of this country make the argument for supporting access even more compelling. In 13 short years, minority undergraduates, many of them low-income, will comprise at least one-third of students in 20 states. As our labor market becomes more and more dependent on the skills of each and every member of society, we can no longer rely on the “talented tenth,” or even the “talented half” to continue our progress. Access for all, from the high-school dropout on up, needs to become a priority. Unfortunately, we are doing very little to prepare for that moment. As I was leaving the Boston high school that I recently visited, the community volunteer who coordinated the event commented on how lucky the students were to have a Harvard professor come and talk with them. It’s sad that I needed to be there at all. All students should have resources like me to help them navigate the complex higher-education system. But even with information, these students will still have to wrestle with the fact that they probably do not have enough resources and aid to afford college. When will those who decide the financial aid policies realize that each dollar devoted to increasing access will have a lifelong impact on students and families everywhere? About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For More Information More information about Bridget Terry Long is available in the Faculty Profiles.