Equity and the rising cost of higher education in America

This week I thought I would get to the meat of it all and I looked for the most recent appropriations bill for Colorado that I could find. The State Board of Education Appropriations Report for 2014-2015 raises interesting challenges for equity in education but it also brings to light the public service orientation of funding state colleges and universities.

To start with the philosophical, the concept of state funded higher education is strong in Colorado. There are 15 two-year colleges and 13 four-year and graduate institutions that receive funding according to the Full Time Equivalency (FTE) of their student populations. The vast majority of these students are Colorado residents and thus the appropriations afforded through the state government to higher education are in fact serving residents equally with subsidized tuition.

That being said, in the last two decades the student FTE enrollment has oscillated with an opposite trend in the appropriations. In other words, when there are more students, there is less money coming into the system. This, I gather- I am not a political scientist – is related to the loss in taxable activities within the state when there are fewer residents working, as was the case in the recession of the last decade. Limited state funds and no limits on tuition increases have pushed the burden of paying for college more heavily onto the shoulders of families and college students (Duran et al., 2015). This is where equity issues become a real concern for the future of Colorado’s students. Instead of providing a reasonable education at a tax subsidized and thus reasonable rate, higher education becomes a commodity only accessible to those with wealth. In a subsidized system, if you make more, you pay more in taxes but in this way our government acts as a social equalizer, or at least that is how it is supposed to work.

Financial aid is one means of systemic equity in which students pay for higher education according to their ability to pay. Although this system get students in the door of the institution, it does not confer a great future to all graduates because the crushing burden of school debt will prevent the graduate from attaining upward mobility quickly. The radiating effects of school debt include myriad social and cultural implications. Rothstein and Rouse (2011) report that between 1993 and 2005 tuition increased 63% at public institutions and students on financial aid increased to 71% with additional students seeking partial support. Students with debt choose higher paying jobs over public service jobs, they delay marriage, and exhibit debt aversion behaviors, which prevents other economy-stimulating consumer activity.

When considering the definition of an organization, this conclusion says it best: “there is no separation between what it is and what it does” (Lindsay et al, 2013, p124). Any institution claiming to have an equity mission must develop a mechanism for providing access regardless of a student’s ability to pay. I do find it to be reasonable for taxpayers to subsidize this mission because as the quote implies, our society is what it does. If we block access to higher education, our fine society will revert to a troubled caste system in which upward mobility is difficult if not impossible as the choice to seek higher education carries heavier and heavier costs for the disenfranchised.

Duran, C., May, J., Gerou, C., Steadman, P., Hodge, M., & Lambert, K. (2015). The State of Colorado joint budget committee appropriations report: Fisal year 2014-2015 (CDHE FY2014-2015). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Lindsey, R. B., Roberts, L. M., & CampbellJones, F. (2013). The culturally proficient school: An implementation guide for school leaders. Corwin Press.

Rothstein, J., & Rouse, C. E. (2011). Constrained after college: Student loans and early-career occupational choices. Journal of Public Economics, 95(1), 149-163.

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