U.S. Lags In Providing College Access, Study Finds

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Other countries are outpacing the United States in providing access to college, eroding an educational advantage the nation has enjoyed for decades, according to a study released today by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The nonprofit research group contends that if left unaddressed, the development will harm U.S. competitiveness in the near future.

"I don't know what it's going to take to get our nation to wake up to what's happening with regard to the education deficit we're building," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who will present a similar study by the College Board on improving access to higher education next week.

"We're standing pat while the rest of the world is passing us by. If we continue on this path, our chances of being the leader in the knowledge economy in the decades to come are between slim and none."

During the past two decades, some other nations have made the kind of effort to improve access to higher education that the United States undertook in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, said Patrick Callan, president of the research group.

In the United States, by contrast, college costs keep rising; more students are dropping out of high school; and large gaps remain in the success rates of students of different races, incomes and states. "We're one of the few countries where our older population is better educated than the younger population," Callan said.

The study gives a failing grade for college affordability to every state but California, which received a C because of the relatively low cost of its community colleges. Researchers said the percentage of an average family's income needed to pay for a public four-year college has risen from 20 to 28 percent, after financial aid. For community colleges, the burden has risen from nearly 20 percent to nearly 25 percent.

"That's a great deal of money for institutions that once served as a safety net for American higher education," said Joni Finney, the center's vice president.

In the past decade, student borrowing has more than doubled, and as the economy worsens, the researchers warned, many states have predicted cuts in higher education funding.

Since the early 1980s, college tuition and fees have jumped nearly 440 percent, far more than health-care, food, housing and transportation costs. The median family income rose less than 150 percent.

Looking at various measures, including academic preparation in high school, high school graduation rates, college enrollment and cost, researchers concluded that although the United States has made modest gains in some areas, many other countries have been far more aggressive about increasing the proportion of students finishing two- and four-year schools.

At nearly 40 percent, the United States is second only to Canada in the percentage of adults 35 to 64 with an associate's degree or higher, a result of efforts that include the G.I. Bill enacted after World War II. But the United States is 10th in the world in the percentage of adults 25 to 34 who have such degrees.

The study does not include the District of Columbia. Maryland and Virginia score better, in general, than most other states, particularly in how well they prepare students for college. But both need to do "dramatically better" in the amount of need-based financial aid they provide, Callan said.

Some schools, including the University of Virginia, have made dramatic efforts in recent years to help lower- and middle-income students. One of the top three reasons that students turned down U-Va. was cost, said Yvonne Hubbard, director of student financial services.

Six years ago, Hubbard had a $9.5 million budget that was parceled out to students, based on need, until the money ran out. But for five years, U-Va. has guaranteed that students from poor families will not have to borrow to pay for school. It capped the amount that middle-income students have to borrow, with the school providing grants to cover the rest. This year, Hubbard had a $22 million budget, and U-Va. will spend about $62 million on financial aid overall.

The Maryland university system used to have the sixth-highest public college tuition in the country. But tuition has been frozen for three years, and the state system has grown by 15,000 students in that time.

Virginia and Maryland have made it much easier for students at community colleges to transfer into four-year state colleges.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company