Colleges' New Tuition Crisis; Rising Costs and Funding Cuts Are Resegregating Higher Education, Not by Color but by Class. Low-Income Students Find It Hard to Pay for a Degree

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Bryant Quinn, Reporter Associate: Temma Ehrenfeld

Higher education is getting less, not more public financial support. That's astonishing, in a country that knows the jobs of the future will require more knowledge and technical talent. President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, promised to add mini-funding to some programs affecting higher ed. But that doesn't begin to offset the losses students face in the value of their federal financial aid. Nor does it make up for the big budget cuts that many struggling states have forced on public colleges and universities--which, by the way, educate 80 percent of our students.

To stay alive, these schools are firing personnel, increasing class size, snuffing courses, limiting enrollment and cutting out some majors. But most of all, they're hiking their tuition and fees. Tom Mortenson, a higher-education policy analyst, calls this "creeping privatization." If the public can't or won't pay enough for state schools ("no new taxes"), then the students must.

For lower-income people, that's easier said than done. The cost crisis is resegregating higher education, not by color but by class. Students of modest means are finding it harder to afford a bachelor's degree. Increasingly, they're shifting out of four-year colleges and universities and into two-year community colleges.

You can see it in the numbers. In 1973, 40.5 percent of the students receiving federal Pell Grants (for the needy) attended four-year public schools. In 2001, that portion was only 31 percent. More of the needy went to community colleges instead.

Fine as our community colleges are, their missions differ from those of four-year schools. They lean toward practical job training (for which Bush just proposed an extra $250 million in funding). For higher-level jobs, however, businesses usually want college graduates, so fewer of the able poor will have the opportunity to rise.

Here's what's going on:

The majority of states, strapped for tax money, are slashing spending on public higher ed. Over the past two years, 27 states have cut their appropriations and 17 have raised them (sometimes by small amounts), while six have held essentially even (that's a cut in real terms). Even when the economy returns to normal, all but a handful of states won't be able to fund their current level of public services without raising taxes, says Donald Boyd of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. ("No New Taxes!")

Tuition hikes have reached double digits. Two-year publics raised their charges by an average of 13.8 percent last year (to $1,905), according to the College Board. That brings the increase to 53 percent over the past decade--nearly twice the inflation rate. …