AIF Blog

A College Education for All?

Apr 03, 2015
Who Can Afford College (and Who Should)?
From student loan interest rate hikes to colleges savings to the recent freeze on maximum Federal Pell Grant, the issues surrounding access and affordability go far deeper than the increasing price tag of a college degree. Sandy Baum, David Leonhardt, Anthony P. Carnevale, and Michael McPherson, discussed college affordability with the Aspen Institute's Josh Wyner at the Festival. (Watch full session here.)
And while they generally agreed that the cost of post-secondary education is currently a problem given the increased value of a college degree, there was some spirited discussion about the nuances of the issue. 
The price of a college education has risen not because of actual costs but due to decreased state funding, by a factor of about 25 percent in the last decade, said Baum, a research professor at George Washington University. And while more public investment should be expected for higher education, what amount is appropriate for taxpayers to bear and what amount should be borne by students and their families is a greater question, she added.
Creating standards and accountability for the nation’s thousands of mostly independent colleges and universities could help put a more definite value on the degrees obtained at those institutions, the panel agreed — although how to do so effectively was debated.
Perhaps the biggest issue with American higher education today is one of inequality, suggested Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“The (college) experience we’re talking about is highly segregated and increasingly segregated by race, class, and ethnicity,” said Carnevale, who noted that 85 percent of white college students are enrolled in the top 400 four-year colleges and universities, while 75 percent of blacks and Hispanics attend open-admission two- and four-year colleges. That’s a big deal, he added, because the former spend more per student and offer more inherently valuable degrees. “So we’re giving four years of school plus grad school to affluent white kids and the rest to everybody else.”
McPhearson, president of the Spencer Foundation, suggested that before leaping toward new models that reduce the cost of a college education, such as online learning, we need to better understand how post-secondary institutions are effective in producing learning. 
“We’re surprisingly ignorant about the actual, instructional processes and learning processes of colleges,” said McPherson, who pointed out that all the public discussion about higher education is about who gets in, what it costs, and how people pay for it when they get out. “So I do think it needs to move, but it needs to move with evidence and not wishful thinking.”
So then what should be considered when evaluating the value of post-secondary education? And how does it relate to questions of equality? Here are some of the panelists' thoughts.


By Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger