Running out of funds and ideas, colleges want more public funding to help keep them afloat. During a recent panel discussion at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, speakers praised President Barack Obama’s higher education push for performance-based pay and incentives for colleges and universities.
Ted Mitchell, U.S. Department of Education undersecretary, complained about today’s higher education funding environment, telling the audience, “There has been systematic disinvestment by states throughout the Great Recession in higher education,” adding that it “really does disadvantage students” from low-income neighborhoods and backgrounds. He felt the state governments, by not funding state universities as much as they used to, were “taking what was a fairly balanced three party compact between states, and families and the federal government and unbalancing that in a way.”
He applauded his department’s efforts to create innovation in higher education through a “first-in-the-world grant competition” where over 500 colleges and universities applied. According to Mitchell, there is a higher education performance fund, run by the Department of Education, to reward states for funding their public institutions and ensure they are funding low-income students.
David Baime, the senior vice president for Government Relations and Research for the American Association of Community Colleges, touted the comparatively lower cost of community colleges and claimed that several community college presidents have begun aggressive outreach efforts to their communities, in order to boost enrollment and increase college readiness. The Great Recession, he noted, was “a double whammy as it were; where we had cuts in funding…along with dramatically increased enrollment” at the same time. Baime said community colleges saw “22% increased enrollment during the three peak years of the recession…which has slowly tapered off [today].” Community colleges’ lower cost “ensure [that] the vast majority of college students don’t graduate with student debt,” he asserted. Baime estimated that 17 percent of students borrow while in community college.
He admitted that “more than 60% of our students are tested to do some remedial work.” A major problem with low-income students is how these “students don’t necessarily have models of college going in their families.” This has “been a difficult needle to thread for a lot of our colleges.” How did all of those who were the first generation in their family to go to college manage all of these years…
University of South Florida (USF) executive president and provost Ralph Wilcox noted that his school is a top 15 research university that has not lost “sight of [our] focus on serving the needs of our students…enhancing student success.” USF saw “an 8 point increase in our freshman retention rate” and increases in six-year graduation rates. Wilcox claimed, “We’ve also seen an increase in graduation rates there from 60 percent to 68 percent” for students enrolled for four years. But, he said, “We’re not yet satisfied” with these results, even with an increase of Pell grant recipients from 19% to 41% in recent years at USF. (When John Belushi uttered a line like this in Animal House 35 years ago, it was meant as a joke.)
He said USF has increased student engagement by requiring freshmen students to live on-campus. He admitted it costs more for the students, but told the audience the reasoning behind the requirement is that USF found, “students that engage fully in life on campus…will progress toward graduation.”
Additionally, Wilcox noted “Not all of those families fully understand FAFSA[the financial aid form]” and it is up to USF administrators to explain these options to students and their families.
USF’s own tuition—$6,500 a year— is slightly more than community colleges—at around $3,000, but Wilcox admitted, “We realize that’s an immense strain on the coffers.” At USF, “We’ve seen an infusion of new investment in public higher education around performance based funding” and a quarter of Florida’s $100 million investment in state universities goes to USF.
Sarah Audelo, policy director at Generation Progress, praised activist students, such as the Millennials she works with, for “targeting members of Congress” and local state legislatures to obtain social services while enrolled in college. She said, “40% of us are young people of color” and about “15% are not born in the United States.” These “DREAMers,” she said, need “to see a whole wraparound support for these young people.” She mentioned the emergence of “LGBT resource centers, because 6% of our generation identifies” as that demographic.
Remedial courses kill the chance of higher education for many poor, young students, Audelo said. “For young people that are already living in poverty…that time, that extra semester or two…is college happening at all or not.” Perhaps it never occurred to her that maybe the answer should be not.
She believed education was a major issue “that young people are ready to mobilize on” and are “taking it to the ballot box as well, which we think is very exciting.” With significant student debt, Audelo said too many young students do not know their options about student loan forgiveness in the public sector. She said that too many students “have drastically shifted their career course” due to student debt and did not know of these options. Audelo commented, “They could be making very different career decisions if they knew” of student loan forgiveness in public sector jobs.