Financial Aid, Access, and America's Social Contract with Higher Education

By Green, Thomas C. | College and University, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Financial Aid, Access, and America's Social Contract with Higher Education


Green, Thomas C., College and University


Over the last century, Americans have formed a social contract with higher education through the development of and changes to student financial aid programs. These federal, state, and institutional programs are the manifestation of the value we place on who should and who does pay the costs of higher education. Grants versus loans and low-income access versus middle-income affordability and choice are two of the major conflicts within these systems. As we look back over this period of great change in student aid, how has the social contract been formed and how has it been amended to reflect American values on higher education? This article examines the historical influences upon public policy and the outcomes of those influences on student financial aid in the United States.

As we acknowledge the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark case Brown, et. al., v. Board of Education, et. al., which ended "separate but equal" as a method for keeping separate children of different races in our schools (Bernstein 1963), it is appropriate and important to examine the events and progress made in the time since this decision. To more sharply focus the lens of this large and sweeping issue, let us examine the role that financial aid policy has played in shaping access for students. How have federal, state, and institutional policies improved or diminished access for students based on race and income levels?

As enrollment managers, these issues cut across admission, financial aid, and retention lines of strategic enrollment management (SEM). Awareness of the facts surrounding issues of access allow us to examine our recruitment and admission practices. Understanding the critical role financial aid plays in SEM helps us to inform discussions on our campuses regarding the roles of need-based and merit-based aid in the recruitment and retention of students. If access has been the common theme of higher education since the 19605, then perhaps attainment will replace it in the new century. As a greater number and proportion of students enter college, the focus may shift to degree completion.

In his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls (1971) introduced the concept of the "social contract." Rawls's work stems from philosophical ideas put forth by Rousseau in the iSoos, aligning with the French motto and themes of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (liberty, equality, and fraternity). Inherent in this motto is an adoption of a social contract, in which certain goods and services are produced for the betterment of the entire society. For example, when students who otherwise could not afford to attend college are provided the means to do so, this may be referred to as our "social contract" with higher education.

Rawls's theory is not without controversy and disagreement, however. French sociologist Raymond Boudon notes that this redistribution of wealth has its limits. If those citizens providing the funding for these benefits perceive that they are excessive, a "social envy" sets in and they resent those citizens who are receiving the benefits. He contends that, instead, it is a mechanism for personal advancement, based on the individual's ability to choose or not choose college attendance after completion of secondary education (Boudon 1976, pp.105-107).

Establishing the Social Contract

The first half of the twentieth century for American higher education was filled with educational inequities. Even though historically black institutions had been founded in several states and funded by such institutions as the Carnegie Foundation, the General Education Board, the Phelps-Stokes Foundation, the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund and others, a report by Thomas Jesse Jones in 1917 cited that only two of these institutions were capable of delivering a college-level education (Anderson 1989). W.E.B. Dubois called for the education of African Americans in a classical liberal culture, a view supported by many others involved with the development and administration of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUS). …

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