Well, the news is in, and it’s not good. Reports from Dell Scholars who have been waiting to receive their financial aid award letters are disappointing. The cost of attending college is up and, compared to years passed, grant aid is greatly reduced or completely gone. For many, scholarship and Pell grant awards are the only grant aid they can count on. But in the midst of the debt ceiling debate, the federal Pell grant program, which supports students based on need, is looking more and more vulnerable. Meanwhile, public institutions that have long provided lower income students with high quality educations are getting hit hard by budget cuts in state after state.
In just one recent example, California addressed its budget gap in part by cutting its college and university system annual budgets by $650 million each—with the threat of even deeper cuts still in the offing. “There’s no question that California has had the most emulated public universities in the nation, and for the rest of the world,” Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told the New York Times in a recent article on the issue. “What we are seeing is the abandonment of the state’s commitment to make California’s education available to all its citizens.” And earlier this year, the Center on Budget and Policy priorities reported that, “At least 43 states have cut assistance to public colleges and universities, resulting in reductions in faculty and staff in addition to tuition increases,” while “Florida’s 11 public universities raised tuition by 15 percent for the 2010-11 academic year.. [resulting] in a total two-year increase of 32 percent.”
At the same time, study after study shows that in order to both minimize unemployment rates in the coming decades and fill available jobs, we need a workforce that includes a healthy supply of workers with the right educations. A 2010 report from Georgetown University projects that, by 2018, American companies will be unable to fill some 3 million jobs that require postsecondary degrees. And a June 2011 McKinsey & Company report, “An economy that works: Job creation and America’s future,” predicts that in 2020, we will face a shortage of 1.5 million degreed workers or more, while “nearly 6 million workers without a high school diploma are likely to be without a job.”
Eliminating key financial lifeline for low-income students is clearly not a prudent strategy. The twin problems of a shortfall of educated workers and a crush of unemployable ones will only get worse if more and more students are priced out of college. The McKinsey study bears this out. Executives interviewed for study “indicated a strong need for workers with specific skills and educational requirements—which may be lacking in the labor force of 2020, absent changes in policies and institutions.”
The good news buried in this bleak picture is that more and more low-income students who graduate high school want to go to college , and that high performing charter schools such as YES Prep and KIPP are projecting exponential alumni growth as they continue to scale the number of students they graduate. The bad news is the students with the greatest financial need will have fewer resources available to them to finance their postsecondary education.
College, for these students and others like them is undoubtedly worth it, but the price of degrees is soaring. Before we make deeper cuts in funding for low-income students, it’s time to do some soul searching. Can we really achieve the lofty college completion goals we’ve set out if we eliminate federal grants for low income college students? And if prices keep soaring while aid diminishes, how will debt-burdened graduates fare? Are we setting kids up for heartbreak by telling them to prepare for college when they won’t be able to afford it?
There’s no doubt that belts are tight all over. But slashing financial aid for the students who need it most won’t solve our short-term problems, and it has the potential to have unintended and extremely negative long-term consequences for both today’s students and tomorrow’s economy.