Penalizing The Poor

Few things are getting cheaper these days -- least of all a college education. According to the College Board, the cost of living tripled between 1978 and 2008 while college tuition and fees increased tenfold.

The good news is that need-based financial aid is available to high-achieving low-income students. The bad news is that the colleges who are least likely to recruit and aid them are among the nation's top-ranked academic institutions.

Despite their professed commitment to reaching out to low-income students, these schools are, through their inaction, shutting them out. "A comparison of low-income shows wide disparities among the most competitive private colleges," The New York Times recently reported. A student at Vassar, for example, is three times as likely to receive a need-based Pell Grant as one at Washington University in St. Louis. In the 2010-2011 academic year, 22% of Vassar's undergraduates received need-based Pell Grants; the same percentages applied at Amherst and Emory. In contrast, only 7% of the undergraduates at Wash U and 8% at Washington and Lee University received Pell Grants.

"Among the top private schools, the disparities are even greater," the Times reported. "Some private college administrators say they do not have the same moral obligation as public colleges to serve all strata of society, though they are loath to say so publicly."

My friend and colleague Eduardo J. Padrón, President of Miami Dade College, wrote in a letter responding to the Times article: "Our system of government does not promise prosperity. But we should be very concerned when the opportunity to learn and prosper is held at a premium."

I couldn't agree more.

Consider that the nation's 1,200 community colleges account for 45% of higher education enrollment -- some 13 million students in all, many of whom are squarely in the low-income category. For the most part, they are being denied the access and financial aid they merit.

That's right -- despite educating nearly half of our nation's undergraduates, community colleges are the beneficiaries of less than a quarter of the Pell Grants awarded. In fact, America's community colleges receive less support than elementary schools and far less than what is spent on four year colleges. Even the nation's for-profit proprietary schools seemingly fare better than community colleges when it comes to the Pell Grants. The for-profit colleges, which account for about half of all college loan defaults and which have been accused of caring more about shareholders than students, currently serve about only 10 percent of all college students but they receive 21 percent of all Pell Grants, as well as the same percentage of federally subsidized loans.

When education programs like the Pell Grants were created, they were considered an investment in a public service. In 2009, some five million college students, many of them attending historically Black colleges and community colleges, received Pell Grants. That number jumped to 9.12 million when President Barack Obama expanded the program. Unfortunately, that translated into an $18.3 billion budget shortfall for the program and rather than appropriate the necessary funds to close the shortfall, Congress changed the qualifications. As a result, hundreds of thousands of students became ineligible. In fact, the changes disproportionately hurt young men and women attending community colleges because they do the lion's share of educating poor students. And, unless there is a significant increase in funding, the program faces a $793 million shortfall in fiscal year 2015, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bottom line is that because of the changes in eligibility and the shortfalls for Pell Grants, millions of low-income students will never even apply to college, scared away by the cost -- with good reason. Less money in Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid means more student loans. Already, the student debt load tops an unfathomable $1 trillion. And it will continue to rise given that the average cost of tuition, room and board at four-year public colleges is over $16,000 a year. Even at community, or two-year, colleges the costs are about $8,000 annually.

Black and Hispanic students make up one-third of community college enrollment nationally. Nearly half of all Hispanic students and 42% of all Blacks in colleges and universities go to community colleges. 40% of community college students are first-generation college goers. While not all of these students are low-income, almost 50% do receive some form of aid. And even with that aid, they struggle to come up with the funds necessary to pay for their education.

President Obama has noted, "Jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs or keep those jobs on our shores, without the training offered by community colleges."

Unfortunately, not all of our elected representatives see it that way. The reality is that the financial future of our community colleges is by no means secure. Across the country, state funding for community colleges has been cut back dramatically. And Congress short-sightedly appropriated only $2 billion for the administration's $10 billion community college initiative.

It makes little sense. Amid a difficult economy, high unemployment and rising tuition costs at private colleges, enrollment at public colleges -- and especially at community colleges -- is at record levels. Since first opening their doors more than a century ago the nation's community colleges have evolved into a powerful educational force.

But even more noteworthy, community colleges have grown to become a powerful driver of workforce development and economic growth across the nation. In earning their Associates degrees, community college graduates know that they have taken a major step toward achieving their personal and professional goals. Equally important, they are on track to make a valuable contribution to the social and economic vitality of their communities and the nation.