College affordability and access has been a story of success and setbacks in recent years. There have been some strides made in giving more students access to higher education through initiatives like the expansion of financial aid coverage through “free” community college initiatives in Tennessee and Chicago. On the other hand, the landscape of higher education access and affordability has been characterized by the removal of previous gains and the erosion of certain channels of access through various means.
One example of this kind of erosion is the Bright Futures Scholarship Program in Florida. The achievement based umbrella program for state-funded scholarships has seen a series of major changes to the ACT and SAT score thresholds that made students eligible for financial aid. By consistently raising the standards, the state government has pulled back resources for students who are most in need and tilted the scales in favor of those who are already in the best position to financially afford to pay for college. Studies have shown that the students who typically score in the upper echelon of ACT/SAT scores are those who can offer to pay for extensive test preparation courses and resources.
Thus, policymakers in Florida have essentially converted the program into a Reverse Robin Hood system that takes lottery money that disproportionately comes from low-income residents and giving it to their upper-income counterparts in the form of scholarships.
This change in funding direction has been complemented by a reduction in overall aid. According to the Miami Herald, “money paid out for scholarships has been cut out in half over seven years and the number of incoming freshmen awarded last year was almost as low as when the program was created in 1997. And, along with hiking the standards, lawmakers have cut the size of the awards.”
“Many students are missing out on opportunities that they don’t even know exist...”
Shifting standards for scholarship programs like Bright Futures have also been accompanied nationally by the financial disinvestment of state governments in the area of higher education. This had led to tuition increases at many institutions throughout the country. Despite a rebounding economy and more robust state budgets, funding for colleges and universities have remained below funding levels prior to the recession.
The trend of state governments balancing their budgets on the backs of students should be contended against. State-level disinvestment along with a proposed 3.9 billion dollar reduction in Pell grants by the Trump administration present major challenges to low- and middle-income students. Pell grants should be expanded significantly as opposed to being cut because rising tuition costs, reduce the purchasing power of Pell grants given their current maximum award limit. A reduction in Pell grants would widen affordability gaps that have led to a stratification of higher education options based on the wealth position of the student’s family.
The trajectory of new accountability metrics for higher education institutions also has problematic side effects. New standards, like those in the state of Florida, are causing institutions to increasingly focus on the successful completion of an undergraduate degree in four years as opposed to the number of students who are gaining access to the university.
While successful completion of a degree in four years is certainly important, the danger of this accountability trend is that universities will only focus on securing the highest achieving students and will ignore the others. We are potentially looking at a situation where low-income students who are not super high achieving will have a rapidly dwindling set of higher education options.
This shifting college access landscape calls for a shift in college readiness strategies. There should be a renewed emphasis by communities and school systems on process-oriented measures like the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Every year, an overwhelming number of low-income students leave billions of dollars worth of financial aid on the table by not filling out the FAFSA. This is a luxury that we can no longer afford in an environment of drastic cuts to student aid.
A potential reduction in funding for Federal TRIO programs like Upward Bound, Talent Search, and other college preparation initiatives will put even more pressure on educational communities and schools to institutionalize higher education readiness process. A good example is Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. who was in the Washington Post this week for making sure that every member of their senior class submitted college applications. This practice should be standard and commonplace for every student, regardless of their academic record. There is a post-secondary education option for everyone. More needs to be done to illuminate and clarify these options for students.
Research by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery suggested that there is enormous potential to increase socioeconomic and racial diversity without in any way sacrificing academic quality by simply getting more underrepresented minority and low-income students to apply, and, when admitted, enroll. A lack of college readiness information and guidance are among the locks that arrest the development of students’ potential. In some cases, the keys to these locks may have been hidden.
Many students are missing out on opportunities that they don’t even know exist because of the failure of adults to adequately inform students about the college-going process. We all have to rethink our process of developing and implementing various forms of communication with students to differentiate the higher education option from other routes and boost their motivation to pursue it.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a scholar and activist.