How Much Does Price Matter?

A study of college access in one key state raises questions about the interplay of cost, race and geography.
April 17, 2006

Most discussions about Americans' access to higher education tend to revolve around a few key points: variation in college-going rates by race and socioeconomic status, often with particular emphasis on minority students and those in urban centers; declines in the academic preparation of students coming out of high school; and the role of college prices in discouraging college enrollment.

A new portrait of higher education in Pennsylvania, however, finds that the access question is playing out a little differently in that Northeast commonwealth, raising particular concerns about the problems of rural students, underscoring the importance of community colleges, and suggesting (controversially) that cost may be less of a deterrent than typically thought. While every state is different, the study's authors are leading scholars on higher education -- one is a member of the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education -- and they surmise that what is unfolding there have lessons for other states.

"My bet is that what is true of Pennsylvania is true of the nation as a whole," says Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of its Learning Alliance for Higher Education, which conducted the study along with the Education Policy and Leadership Center, led by Ronald Cowell. Zemsky is one of 19 members of the federal commission studying higher education.

The groups prepared the report, "A Rising Tide: The Current State of Higher Education in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," to help policy makers as they get ready for a systematic review of the state's higher education system. (The authors suggest, in an aside, that such a review is overdue, saying that "Pennsylvania's system of higher education has evolved largely without either plan or design," creating a situation in which "a state's higher education institutions have been allowed to evolve unfettered in a world increasingly shaped by market forces.") Through a series of data analyses, student surveys and other techniques, the researchers seek to assess how higher education institutions in Pennsylvania -- public, private and for-profit -- have been serving its residents.

They found a positive picture over all, the authors say, in that 30 percent more Pennsylvanians age 25 or older had attended at least some college in 2000 than was true a decade earlier. The state's residents were more likely than other Americans to have attended college (52 percent vs. 44 percent) and attained a bachelor's degree (24 vs. 22 percent).

But in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, the progress was uneven. All racial groups saw increases in their college-going rates, but enrollments of African-American and Hispanic students lagged significantly behind those for white residents and especially Asian ones. The commonwealth, the authors write, "has made little if any progress in closing the gap between majority and minority attainment, particularly for African Americans and Hispanic Americans."

(The study also looked at which kinds of institutions students of different races were attending, and found that African American and Hispanic students were far more heavily represented at community colleges than were white and Asian students. Hispanic students, though. were more likely than African American students were to attend private institutions, suggesting that private institutions -- probably Roman Catholic ones -- are playing an important role in terms of meeting the needs of those students.)

"Just as disappointing," the study says, "is the gap between the prospects of young people schooled in rural as opposed to urban and suburban communities." Dividing Pennsylvania into seven regions, the researchers found that the regions in the central part of the state -- between the western part of the state dominated by Pittsburgh and the east emanating outward from Philadelphia -- had significantly lower levels of educational attainment than the others.

Public policy experts often explain the underrepresentation of minority and rural students in college by citing the fact that they typically come from less-affluent communities (which on average send young people to college in greater proportions) and because their primary and secondary schools are of worse quality. Those factors are important in Pennsylvania, too, the authors say, but they used a regression model combining family income, geography and college going that found two other key factors that suppress the college-going rates of rural and other underrepresented students: the number of colleges in the region and the lack of a nearby open-enrollment institution.

"The lever most readily available to policy makers in Pennsylvania is one that increases the spread of community colleges across the Commonwealth -- either by opening new community colleges, opening branches of established community colleges in adjacent counties and regions, or by developing funding mechanisms which enable counties without community colleges to assume a fair portion of the financial responsibility when students from those counties attend community colleges elsewhere" in Pennsylvania, the report says.

Perhaps controversially, the authors say that even though the state's colleges are among the nation's most expensive, for "most young Pennsylvanians," the price of a higher education is "important without being a determining factor in the decision to attend or not to attend" college. Citing a survey of Pennsylvania high school graduates aged 18 to 34 that was conducted by Franklin and Marshall College's Floyd Institute for the study, they conclude that about 8 percent of those who had either dropped out of college or not attended at all had cited cost of attendance as the major reason why.

That percentage is "certainly a smaller proportion than the hue and cry currently surrounding discussions of higher education affordability would suggest," the authors write. Still, 8 percent is "a lot of young people who feel that the current cost of attending college pushes a higher education beyond their means. It is a potential pool of students that neither the Commonwealth nor its institutions of higher education can afford to ignore."

Donald E. Heller, a professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University and, like Zemsky,  a nationally recognized scholar and public policy expert, argued that the authors of the report seem to have interpreted the results of the Floyd Institute study in a way that greatly understates how much college prices were a barrier to students. More respondents cited the need to work and earn money as the biggest factor in their decisions to drop out or not enroll at all in college than any other reason, and "I suspect that for some good proportion of those," Heller said, "the reason they opted to work or earn money is because they couldn't afford to go to college."

By failing to count any of those students as people for whom "cost was a barrier to college," Heller said, the authors of the Pennsylvania study "are really grossly understating the proportion of those for whom the cost of college was a problem."  

He added: "In a state with such high tuitions, this sends a signal that there really doesn't seem to be a problem with high cost, and I think their interpretation is flawed."


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