In President Biden’s American Families Plan, he proposes increasing free education by four years (2 in pre-school, 2 in community college) and increasing college affordability by raising the maximum Pell Grants by $1,400. Halleluiah! As our nation rebuilds for a post-COVID world, I am thrilled to see so much attention given to that oh so necessary component of our economy, education. It is clear that Biden and his team recognize that access to education is one of the most important equity issues in America.
Equity in the pre-K world is essential and we have long known that students who have access to quality pre-K options do better than those who do not. Starting with the need for lots of interaction so that the right paths in the brains are developed to the muscles developed when holding crayons to the social skills like sharing, taking turns, and playing together, pre-school is just wonderful for child development. We have long understood the benefits of this investment as we supported Head Start for low-income families and pre-K for students who have identified learning needs. But access to Pre-K is inconsistent and the quality of programs varies. Putting pre-K into our assumptions about what public education means can invigorate conversations about what pre-school should be and how it might align with the larger goals of K-12. So, yes, pre-K for everyone. Let’s take the leap.
Free community college is great, too. There are very few careers that do not rely on some education beyond K-12. Yet, access to education, even at the reduced costs of most community college systems, can be elusive for many families. Here in Connecticut our community colleges offer a variety of straight to career options, advanced manufacturing and RN degrees, for example. They also provide lots of support for English Language Learners, which is vital for students and the state. And, most important for my university, they provide a pathway to the four-year degree. Like many states, we have worked on Transfer Articulation Pathways (TAP) to ensure that students who start in community college can move on to the four-year degree without having to backtrack on various degree requirements. This important effort is benefitting students throughout Connecticut.
If you dig in further, you’ll also note that Biden’s plan reflects a much more informed understanding of higher education than we’ve seen in, well ever. Perhaps it is the influence of Dr. Jill Biden, but someone is finally reading the data and realizing that the way we have been evaluating university outcomes incentivizes creating more barriers to entry instead of improving support for the many students interested in striving for an undergraduate degree. It is easy to have great retention and graduation rates (and therefore rise in the rankings) if you simply do not admit students who may need support beyond financial aid. Those of us who have been supporting students who have those needs know this only too well. We’ve been ignored or punished for years, by way of inadequate funding and low rankings, while we strive to meet these needs and make access to public education a reality for the many, not just the few. We try to squeeze retention efforts into our existing budgets, often sacrificing other university needs or underfunding these programs. So, I was thrilled to see that 62 million dollars in the plan is being focused on retention and degree completion. This must be what the world looks like when we actually commit to equity in education.
Finally, the new plan will increase Pell, $1,400. This is long overdue, of course. Pell has not increased at anywhere near the pace of the cost of education. Students from families of limited means desperately need these funds to keep them from having to skip college or, worse, try to succeed while working three jobs. While I am proud of our students who are managing this juggle, too much work often leads to slower progress to degree completion, which just costs more money in the end. Sufficient funding at the start is a much better approach.
As thrilled as I am with all of this, though, there is just one more piece that I’d like to see. For public universities, the cost of education has increased because our fixed costs have risen. This is just normal living wages for those who work in higher ed and the cost of maintaining our facilities – not extravagant salaries and lazy rivers. As those costs have risen, our state appropriations have not kept pace, and we have had no choice but to raise tuition. I want to be clear; we are not doing a lot of “nice to have” things. We are simply supporting quality educational experiences, aligned with the expectations of regional and specialized accrediting bodies. We are working hard to be as efficient as possible, but education is a labor-intensive endeavor and you just can’t job it out to packaged learning products. The ever-increasing costs of tuition at public universities is making higher education a stretch for the middle class, not just low-income families.
So, here’s the ask– let’s fund the state universities enough so that we do not exceed $10,000 a year in tuition and fees. It is true we’ll still have to charge another $10-12,000 for residential experiences, but for the many (majority) who commute to our campuses, this cap will mean a cap on the debt they will acquire as they piece together their contributions and some student loans. It is still a lot of money, but even if a student needed loans for all of it, the earnings benefit from completing their degrees would make this manageable. I don’t love it, but it is so much better than the endless creeping up of tuition and fee costs for students.
What is invisible in the funding of free community college is the way that it disrupts the four-year economic model. There is just no way for us to keep our costs low and take the enrollment hits as students opt for the free two years. Add to that shifting demographics and the fact that state colleges and universities are increasingly tuition dependent as the percentage of our funding from the state has dropped, and you can see the extent of the strain we are feeling. The entire mess is leading to the reality that we will need to reduce the number of programs we offer and keep raising our costs. This does not further educational equity.
So, let’s re-write the way we fund four-year state colleges and universities. Instead of just looking at the number of students enrolled, let’s add keeping tuition and fees to $10,000 to the formula. We will have to increase the percentage of state funding to meet this target. I know that this is difficult for our elected officials who manage many constituent opinions about education, but if we talk about the benefits to all families and to the state economy, I think it just isn’t that tough a sell. While we’re at it, align the maximum Pell with that tuition number so all students can choose two- or four-year programs from the start. It isn’t perfect, but it is a start. Or we could go ahead and make the four-year universities free, too. But I’m guessing that’s too much to dream of at this time.