President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) on November 8, 1965. The ceremony occurred before a packed house at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University-San Marcos). With his wife, Lady Bird, by his side, and surrounded by faculty, students, and administrators, Johnson gave prefatory remarks that were solemn yet optimistic: "The president's signature upon this legislation passed by this Congress will swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open — the door to education."
The $3 billion act marked the culmination of three decades of federal support for research funding and student aid that stretched across the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. One title provided aid for land grant urban extension programs; two titles offered assistance for construction projects; another title created the Teachers Corps; and another lent support to historically black colleges. But it was the student assistance title (Title IV) and its trio of aid options — work study, loans, and grants — that revolutionized college-going in this country, helping tens of millions of Americans go to college. It was the key to opening Johnson’s "door to education."
This year the act is again up for reauthorization, and for the first time in recent memory there exists genuine concern that the door the act opened is starting to shut. The "cost crisis" in higher education, now more than four decades in the making, has finally come home to roost. Since the economic crisis hit five years ago, state appropriations have plummeted and tuition has climbed. Spiraling dropout rates and student debt combined with reports of "limited learning" in college and high unemployment after have upped the anxiety level. Recent polls indicate that the American people are worried about paying for college and unsure whether it’s still a worthwhile investment, even though all the evidence indicates that earning a degree today matters more than ever.
In last month’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said he intended to "ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid." With an agenda already loaded down by sequestration, gun control and immigration reform, this will be very hard to do. But let’s assume that the act is overhauled and changes are made to the current financial aid system. It’s worth speculating what this new regulatory regime might look like. That it might end up bearing a family resemblance to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the decade-old K-12 accountability model built on Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), should give pause to those of us who care about higher education.
The fundamentals of NCLB are well-known. In exchange for federal Title I funding, the states must annually test students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and all students must be "proficient" in these subjects by 2014, unless your state received a waiver from the Department of Education. Schools that fail to make adequate "annual yearly progress" face increasingly severe sanctions: staff can be fired and a new curriculum installed, and if improvements aren’t made, failing schools can be restructured or even closed. While the results of NCLB have been mixed — gains in one place offset by losses in another — there is no doubt that regulation of this sort would harm American higher education. The strength of the U.S. system lies in the autonomy and freedom it affords and in the wide range of institutional and pricing options that it provides. This is rarely acknowledged. The media home in on what are actually outlier institutions, like Harvard University or the University of California at Berkeley, cite anecdotal evidence, then generalize across the whole sector, as if all institutions are the same and all students have identical educational goals.
Most students don't go to residential colleges or have endless free time. Most students aren’t 18 to 21 years of age and most students don’t graduate in four years. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most students in this country go to a broad access four-year public institution or a two-year community college. Most students commute to class and work part time. And 40 percent of students are from low-income households.
All of which is to say that if new measures are passed to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality," as the White House has since described it, they will not affect all students or institutions the same. At wealthy colleges that attract exceptionally well-prepared students it will be business as usual no matter what happens. Not so at broad access institutions. Just as the burden of NCLB has been borne most by poor students and districts, similarly styled higher education reform will mean even more obstacles for "those who aspire to the middle class" — poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation students whose college options are already limited.
The president’s reluctance to address the link between poverty and education is notable, since the ESEA and the HEA were the main fronts of Johnson’s "unconditional war on poverty." The Educational Opportunity Grant, forerunner of the Pell Grant, was the HEA’s silver bullet, targeting students of "exceptional financial need" to help them earn a college diploma. Passed the year after the Civil Rights Act barred discrimination by any institution that received public funds, the HEA fueled the enrollment of African Americans and other underserved populations. Roughly 160,000 African Americans were in college in 1960, the majority of them at a historically black college or university (HBCU); by 1975 more than a million African Americans were in school, most of them outside the HBCU network.
In retrospect, the late 1970s was the golden age of college access, when the portable Pell Grant actually covered half the cost of a college education, as it was intended to do, and African Americans and other minority groups reaped the benefits of equal opportunity. It didn’t last. By the mid-1980s, loans eclipsed grants as the government’s preferred aid instrument, supplemented later by tax credits, tax-deferred 529 college saving plans, and state and institutional merit aid programs that have disproportionately benefited middle- and upper-income families. All the while the purchasing power of the Pell Grant has withered and the education gap has grown, impoverishing us all.
This brings us to our current moment and the various NCLB-inspired plans to tie aid to cost, value, and quality — that is, to outcomes and accountability rather than access and opportunity. This shift in priorities will not only hurt poor students but the entire higher education system. Colleges will be less willing to take chances on students that can’t pay full freight or look like they won’t graduate on time, leading to greater economic stratification and the end of student diversity as we’ve known it. Professors will feel even more pressure to pass students along regardless of the work they do, thus making rampant grade inflation worse. Administrators will be apt to massage student data to improve their institutional outcomes and rankings. And parents will demand that their students pursue pre-professional degrees with the strongest employment prospects, further marginalizing the liberal arts and other "blue sky" fields that offer less immediate "bang for the buck," turning them into wealthy majors for those who can afford idle cogitation. Meanwhile, ever greater numbers of poor students will cluster around the least desirable yet most expensive diploma mills, resulting in even more young people being left behind.
Are these doomsday scenarios far-fetched? Not really. Some of these things are already happening, now. But we’re not going to solve these issues by following policy makers and self-anointed reformers who want an aid model based on outcomes rather than opportunity. Simply put, higher education is setting itself up for failure by making promises it will not be able to keep. Does anyone really believe that we can create a system where every student who enters college graduates four years later with a degree, debt-free? Or that we can have classrooms where all students learn the same amount and in the same way? Or that every college graduate will land the job of her dreams? Higher education has never, ever done that. Not in the 19th century or in the 20th. And it never will.
Rather than creating more problems, we should mine the past for approaches that we know will keep "the door to education" open. The Pell Grant should be expanded and restored to its full purchasing power. To pay for it, regressive education tax credits favoring high earners should be abandoned and along with it financial aid to for-profit education providers, where the dropout, debt and default rates are highest and always have been. Colleges should be required to provide applicants with easy access to real pricing information to help with the choice process. And the income-based loan repayment program should be streamlined and a national service program created to put college graduates to work. After all, we don’t just need doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists; we also need teachers, artists, historians, and community organizers.
The challenge of our lifetime remains the problem of poverty. But to meet that challenge requires acknowledging that it exists. Lyndon Johnson knew that a truly great society was not possible "until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination." This remains as true today as it was then, and so too does Johnson’s fair warning: “We are still far from that goal.”
The Obama administration unveiled its new College Scorecard with much fanfare this month. Highlighted to college-bound students as a way to “get the most bang for your educational buck,” the Scorecard is intended to serve as a consumer guide for higher education. The first section of the Department of Education’s new College Scorecard features the average net price of attendance at the selected institution. To guide users, the scorecard categorizes these average net prices as low, medium or high.
There’s just one problem: no student is average.
Consider a low-income applicant to the University of Pennsylvania, a school with a high sticker price. At Penn, a full-price student pays $59,600 (including tuition, room & board, and other fees) and a low-income student with a full scholarship pays $0. The average net price across these two students is $29,800. (As it happens, Penn’s reported average net price is $20,592.) Just like high sticker prices, high average net price can mislead students from modest circumstances looking for affordable college options. Many colleges – particularly prestigious schools with high sticker prices – are committed to building socioeconomically diverse student bodies. At such schools, students’ individualized net prices can vary significantly depending on their financial circumstances.
Would-be college students can access this kind of information before they decide where to apply to school. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) required all postsecondary institutions receiving Title IV funding to post net price calculators (NPCs) on their websites by October 2011. Using NPCs, students can identify their likely cost of attending different institutions – a number that often varies widely between students based on their state of residence, academic performance, personal income, assets, the number of family members also attending college and a variety of other factors. An individual student's net price is often different from both the school’s full-fare “sticker price” and the average net price.
The administration seems to be focusing on the College Scorecard, so we hear little about the net price calculators these days. Like the College Scorecard, NPCs offer key financial information to students and families prior to application and matriculation. The College Board’s 2012 study revealed that more than half of college-bound seniors from lower-income and middle-income families still rule out colleges on the basis of sticker price, but with the advent of NPCs, students from all backgrounds can identify affordable college options before they decide where to apply.
This innovation has the potential to turn college advising on its head. Instead of discussing financial aid after students have received acceptance letters in senior spring, counselors can help students build application lists in junior spring that take financial aid into account. With the Scorecard’s average net prices, high schools students are left with yet another one-size-fits-all ranking of affordability; in short, it is not much better than the starting “sticker price.”
To demonstrate the relative importance of individualized net prices, let’s take a look at the projected cost of college for Cristina Moreno, the narrator of the 2004 film “Spanglish” and a first-generation low-income minority college-bound student. Here, we have compared Cristina’s individualized net prices with the average net prices for three schools: University of California at Berkeley, New York University and Hampshire College.
For low-income students like Cristina, the College Scorecard misses the mark – sometimes by a big margin. As with sticker prices, these average net prices can indicate to low-income students that they will find neither financial support nor a warm welcome at selective schools.
Ultimately, the White House College Scorecard serves two important purposes: it provides policymakers a high-level view of the affordability of a school, and it provides students a more user-friendly portal to access existing summary data. Though the average net price might be helpful to policymakers trying to manage the overall cost of education in America, students making the biggest investment of their lives need easy access to detailed, individualized information. The Center for American Progress – which issued criticism of the draft College Scorecard in 2012 – praised the new version for including a link to each school’s NPC. Even so, parents and students would need to visit each school’s individual NPC – adding time and repetition to an already complicated college search – and then decode the distinctive results pages generated by calculators built by the numerous vendors in the space.
Despite the advantages of using net price calculators to identify affordable schools, the CollegeBoard’s 2012 study revealed that only 35 percent of college-bound high school seniors used NPCs during their college search. Initial efforts to promote NPCs included a video contest and substantial press coverage, but many college access professionals and counselors still aren’t aware of the net price calculators, let alone the federal requirement.
Theoretically, links to all NPCs have been available since 2011 on the Department of Education's College Navigator, but the list posted there is far from accurate; in 2012, our team spent more than 500 hours identifying the correct links for all 7,000+ schools and campuses receiving Title IV funding. A quick check of the College Scorecard’s NPC links revealed the University of West Alabama’s NPC link actually directs users to its homepage, but at least the calculators garnered a spot in the new system.
Regrettably, in drafting the HEOA, Congress missed an opportunity to create a centralized system based on the individualized net price concept. HEOA did not compel schools to adopt a specific net price calculator, and the implementation of the NPC requirement has yielded more than a dozen different calculator types with hundreds of variations. To generate of individualized net price results across all schools in a College Scorecard type system, the federal government would need to compel the adoption of a universal net price calculator format and amend HEOA. Such a requirement would place an additional burden on college financial aid offices, but would certainly benefit students seeking a bigger bang for their buck during the college selection process.
At College Abacus, we are closing the gap between legislation – and its goals – and the actual needs of students, parents, and counselors around the United States. We are taking on the task of aggregating the net price calculators into a single, student-friendly tool. With the help of a grant provided by the Gates Foundation’s College Knowledge Challenge, we expect College Abacus to expand from its current group of 4,000+ schools to include all US colleges and universities by September 2013.
Given the 1 trillion dollar student loan crisis, students need help identifying colleges that they can afford. The College Scorecard may have stimulated conversation on this critical issue, but it is unlikely to serve our most vulnerable students in their pursuit of affordable higher education.
Abigail Seldin is the CEO and co-founder of College Abacus, and an ABD DPhil in anthropology at the University of Oxford.