The Difficult Issue of College Affordability

No single issue related to higher education is receiving as much attention today as the issue of college affordability. Universities across the country (Ohio State included) are listing affordability as one of the primary priorities that need to be wrestled with. States (including Ohio) are issuing directives that will address the shortcomings of current pricing structures, academic programs, and financial aid approaches.  Student groups (including Ohio State’s USG) are debating how they can request (or demand) some relief from overwhelming costs associated with the pursuit of a degree. On January 16th President Obama held a summit at the White House for more than a hundred “college and university presidents and leaders from non-profits, foundations, state governments and the private sector.” The goal was to address the issues and discuss best practices for access and affordability, particularly for needy students.

I applaud all of these concerns, and I express a significant amount of hope that these efforts will result in meaningful solutions that all of us in higher ed can look to for resolving our current situation. But while I have that hope, I refer to the following excerpt, which very clearly reflects the current state of access and affordability:

The impressive record compiled by a dedicated educational community stands in contrast to some grave shortcomings in our post-secondary educational system in general and to the Federal share of it in particular.

  • Federal student loan programs have helped millions to finance higher education; yet the available resources have never been focused on the neediest students.
  • The rapidly rising cost of higher education has created serious financial problems for colleges, and especially threatens the stability of private institutions.
  • Too many people have fallen prey to the myth that a four-year liberal arts diploma is essential to a full and rewarding life, whereas in fact other forms of post-secondary education-such as a two-year community college or technical training course–are far better suited to the interests of many young people.
  • The turmoil on the nation’s campuses is a symbol of the urgent need for reform in curriculum, teaching, student participation, discipline and governance in our post-secondary institutions.
  • The workings of the credit markets, particularly in periods of tight money, have hampered the ability of students to borrow for their education, even when those loans are guaranteed by the Federal government.
  • The Federal involvement in higher education has grown in a random and haphazard manner, failing to produce an agency that can support innovation and reform.

We are entering an era when concern for the quality of American life requires that we organize our programs and our policies in ways that enhance that quality and open opportunities for all.

No element of our national life is more worthy of our attention, our support and our concern than higher education. For no element has greater impact on the careers, the personal growth and the happiness of so many of our citizens. And no element is of greater importance in providing the knowledge and leadership on which the vitality of our democracy and the strength of our economy depends.

This Administration’s program for higher education springs from several deep convictions:

  • Equal educational opportunity, which has long been a goal, must now become a reality for every young person in the United States, whatever his economic circumstances.
  • Institutional autonomy and academic freedom should be strengthened by Federal support, never threatened with Federal domination.
  • Individual student aid should be given in ways that fulfill each person’s capacity to choose the kind of quality education most suited to him, thereby making institutions more responsive to student needs.
  • Support should complement rather than supplant additional and continuing help from all other sources.
  • Diversity must be encouraged, both between institutions and within each institution.
  • Basic reforms in institutional organization, business management, governance, instruction, and academic programs are long overdue.

This excerpt, while seeming to describe this nation’s current situation, was taken from a statement by President Nixon on March 19, 1970, on the eve of his submission of the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The New York Times noted the barbell distribution of financial aid in a 1972 editorial: “The rising cost of going to college makes it increasingly difficult for all but the affluent or the completely subsidized poor to attend the expensive campuses.”

There have been several very important milestones in our history that have shaped the way higher education serves our country. The Morrill Act of 1862 changed American’s perception of college, and was very instrumental in the way the citizens of the United States could get access to post-secondary education through the establishment of land-grant institutions. In 1890, Morrill II had an impact on access for minorities, and established HBCUs. 1901 saw the first of what we now call the junior or community college. The 1944 GI Bill had a huge impact on accessibility of college for our returning veterans, and literally changed the face of higher education. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 made available low-interest loans for students who were pursuing degrees that were  important to the nation’s security. (I personally took advantage of the National Defense Student loan program to help finance my own education.) 1965 saw the creation of the Federal College Work Study program and the Basic Education Opportunity Grant as part of the Higher Education Act, which changed the nature of “federal financial aid” and provided the means necessary for low-income, low socioeconomic students to attend college (Title IV funds). This Act was reauthorized in 1972, and many blame this reauthorization for contributing to a dependence on federal funds (Pell grants soon followed in 1973) and forcing students into increased reliance on college loans – putting us into the situation we’re in now.

Nixon closed his 1970 submission to congress with the following statement:

The time has come for a renewed national commitment to post-secondary education and especially to its reform and revitalization. We must join with our creative and demanding young people to build a system of higher education worthy of the ideals of the people in it.

I want to echo that statement, now nearly 44 years later. But, for reasons we all know too well, colleges and universities have been complacent, and unwilling to change. But we have to. We have the ability and creativity and intellect in our institutions to bring to bear on this serious issue. However, it can’t necessarily be done in the ways that our politicians and legislators and regulatory commissions are dictating it be done. We have to raise our higher ed voices so that they are not drowned out by legislative edicts. It’s now time for another “milestone” in our history, that will provide real relief from the escalating cost of college and the impact it is having on our country, and will at the same time insure the integrity of the educational foundations we embrace.

Matson Cartoon


President Richard Nixon’s Special Message to the Congress on Higher Education, March 19, 1970.

Stratifying the Campuses, New York Times April 23, 1972. 

Cartoon: ©R.J. Matson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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