Closing College Doors

American higher education is no longer the avenue of intergenerational upward mobility that it once was. Instead of serving as an agent of opportunity, much of higher education has become simply another agent of stratification.

Two statistics are especially alarming. Top-achieving high-school graduates from low-income families now head immediately off to college at the same rate as the lowest-achieving students from high-income families. By age 24, 75 percent of young people from families earning more than $80,000 a year earn a bachelor's degree, while the corresponding figure for those from families earning less than $25,000 a year is 9 percent.

When asked about this problem, most college leaders are quick to point fingers of blame elsewhere. They point at the federal government, for its waning commitment to student aid; at state governments, for declining support; and at high schools -- especially those serving poor and minority students -- for producing too few college-qualified students.

These claims aren't all wrong. When Lyndon Johnson signed the law creating the first federal student-aid program, he made a solemn promise to America's youth. "Tell them," he said, "that the leadership of your country believes it is the obligation of your nation to provide and permit and assist every child born in these borders to receive all the education that he can take." Over time, however, the federal government's principal aid program for low-income students -- the Pell Grant -- went from covering 75 percent of college costs in 1979 to only 33 percent in 2005, while federal spending on aid for higher-income students soared.

State governments, too, have shifted their priorities. Most states have never spent much on student aid, but what they do spend is increasingly going to students without demonstrated need. And people who read the newspaper or pay attention to Bill Gates are well aware of the problems in American high schools.

What most people don't know, however, is that the colleges themselves are independent actors in the national drama of shrinking opportunity. Most colleges have considerable aid dollars of their own. Had college leaders wanted to, they could have used their aid to cushion low-income students from the effects of the shift in government aid and rising tuition costs. Instead, they chose to shift their aid to the more-affluent students who help their schools climb the college rankings.

In the last eight years, on average, four-year private colleges increased their aid to students from families making less than $20,000 a year by 52 percent, to $5,240. At the same time, however, they increased the average award to students from families with annual incomes above $100,000 by 254 percent, to $4,806. In 2003, the average institutional award for students from families earning between $80,000 and 100,000 a year was actually $1,200 more than the average award for students from the lowest-income families.

The pattern in four-year public colleges was no better. During the same eight-year period, the average institutional grant aid to students from families making less than $20,000 a year increased by $415 (50 percent), while the average for students from families who make more than $100,000 a year increased by $542 (227 percent).

Even the nation's flagship public universities -- institutions with a special mission to educate the future business, political, and civic leaders in each state -- are turning their backs on qualified low-income students. These institutions, typically the oldest and most-prestigious public universities in each state, have considerably more to spend on student aid than most other colleges do -- more, in fact, than their students receive from federal or state sources. Yet here, too, instead of staying focused on the students who need help the most, the flagship universities have shifted their resources to the more-affluent students who will help them enhance their own prestige.

Over the past eight years, these and other public research universities increased the average institutional grant aid to students from families in the lowest-income group by 29 percent. At the same time, the average for each student from families making more than $100,000 a year increased by 186 percent. By 2003, the average award to a grant recipient from a family earning more than $100,000 a year was higher ($3,823) than the average award to a low-income recipient ($3,691).

The cumulative effects of these shifts on students from families with annual incomes below $40,000 are devastating. These students have been the least likely to be shielded from the rapid increases in college costs. Not surprisingly, their presence in four-year private colleges has plummeted, from 37 percent in 1995 to 27 percent in 2003. In four-year public colleges, their numbers dropped from 38 percent to 28 percent. And the situation at some institutions is much, much worse. At the University of Virginia, for example, low-income students comprise only 8 percent of undergraduates; at the University of Wisconsin, only 13 percent.

The saddest part of this -- for me, anyway -- is that too many of us sat silently as federal, state, and college officials helped fuel the relentless march of privilege in our country and hollowed out the promise that is America. Shame on us.