A Step Towards Equal Opportunity

Here in the United States, we believe in equality of opportunity. The vision is that the results may not be equal, but we should all at least have equal footing at the starting gate.

The reality, of course, is very different. For children in low-income families, opportunity is anything but equal. At the very beginning of their lives, they face substandard child care and little or no early education, less decent health care, and public schools of generally inferior quality. But even if they overcome all that and graduate from high school, and even if they want to go on to post-secondary education and qualify for it, most can't go for one big reason - they can't afford it.

President Obama is trying to change that. In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he expanded existing tax credits for higher education to $2,500 for this academic year. The measure also made it partially refundable for the first time, which allows low-income families to qualify. Pell grants, the main vehicle for getting low-income young people into college, rose under the Recovery Act to $5,350 for 2009 and $5,550 for 2010, after six years frozen at $4,050.

But President Obama wants to go further. He wants to expand Pell grants for low-income students and make them an entitlement similar to Medicare or Social Security. He wants to expand the Perkins loans that fill in funding gaps, and to make a student's need the chief criterion for awarding these loans. He wants to fund these expansions through savings in the way the college loan program is financed while putting in place ways to reduce college tuition and increase the number of students who graduate.

Today, children of wealthy parents are the ones who disproportionately attend college. The large increase in college enrollment in the past 20 years was among children in the top 60 percent of income.

This disparity is not surprising. Tuition is an expensive up-front investment. College costs have increased more rapidly over the past two decades than the cost of prescription drugs or health insurance, and far more rapidly than family income.

Meanwhile, student financial assistance at the federal, state and university level has shifted away from a needs-based approach, leaving low-income and moderate-income students sitting at home. And the tax code structure meant tax credits for college went disproportionately to the rich, who needed them least.

In 1975, a Pell grant covered about 84 percent of the cost of attending public college or university. Today it covers only 36 percent. The effect of this large unmet financial need is that many graduating high school students who want to go on and who are qualified to do it never become post-secondary students at all. Only about one-half of all "college-qualified" students from low-income families enter a four-year college, compared to over 80 percent of similarly qualified students from high-income families.

If we want to live up to our promise of equal opportunity, we need to increase the size and number of Pell grants and give loan priority to those who need it most, just as President Obama is proposing. This will be a first step toward making equal opportunity not a hollow slogan but a real national commitment.