Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality. About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.
Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.
If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students. Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.
The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given. Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.
Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.
Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level. In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).
These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.
Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America. The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree. This should be unacceptable to a democracy. It should be unacceptable to higher education. How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll? Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.
Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it? Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them. Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college. But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient: Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.
If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives? How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us. Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.
The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services? The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.
Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress. Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.
What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth? And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is. It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.
Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented. It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need -- more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?
Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.
English professors at a Michigan community college now spend four hours a week with students during an introductory composition course. Their president wants to cut that time to three hours for some students, and faculty members object.
After reading Obergefell I think the concerns of these colleges are unjustified for a number of reasons. But I also think that this case has given us an opportunity to open a dialogue about a plurality of viewpoints in our culture. The onus for such a conversation is on my own community, the evangelicals who have been criticizing Obergefell. At the same time, conservative Christians who are worried about Obergefell get even more stubborn when the public labels them bigots for refusing to support something they truly believe to be harmful. It’s time for all of us to listen to each other and talk to each other more carefully.
The Cause of the Worry
Some Christian universities are worried that they will lose their tax-exempt status and have to close if they are not willing to change their beliefs about homosexuality. This concern was first voiced during the Obergefell oral arguments when Justice Alito said this: “In the  Bob Jones [University] case, the court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?”
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., arguing for same-sex marriage, responded that without more specifics he couldn’t be certain but that it would definitely “be an issue.”
This exchange caused the chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Virginia to write in USA Today that churches and faith-based educational institutions would have to decide what was more important, their religious convictions or their tax exemption. He said religious schools and colleges should get prepared for the fallout of a decision in favor of same-sex marriage because the “bullying” would be immediate.
The concern that Justice Alito expressed emerges from a 1983 Supreme Court case, Bob Jones v. U.S., involving a conservative Christian university that discriminated on the basis of race.For decades Bob Jones University denied admittance to black students, but by the early 1970s it changed that policy. It decided to admit black students but it kept its policy that said students would be expelled if they engaged in interracial dating. This student behavior rule was based on an interpretation of the Bible that suggested God intended the races to be separate.
The Internal Revenue Service in 1971 barred tax exemptions to colleges that discriminated on the basis of race, and determined that Bob Jones University did so.
When the university brought a lawsuit against the IRS, the Supreme Court affirmed that proper interpretation of the IRS statute meant institutions seeking tax-exempt status must serve a “public purpose and not be contrary to established public policy.” Racial discrimination did not serve a public purpose; furthermore, it violated public policy. Today, some faith-based institutions worry that an interpretation of their scriptures forbidding homosexuality will be found to be a violation of public policy just like racism.
Is their worry valid? For reasons embedded in the cases themselves, the answer is no.
An Unwarranted Concern
There are two reasons that faith-based colleges will be allowed to continue to act on their beliefs against homosexuality without losing tax-exempt status.
First, the Supreme Court in Bob Jones based its decision on the fact that every branch of government and an unbroken line of Supreme Court cases had repeatedly and explicitly denounced racial segregation. That reasoning focused on a legislative and jurisprudential history that had developed over 100 years. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment targeting racial discrimination was ratified in 1868. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that interpreted the Constitution to disallow segregation in education, was handed down in 1954. And while some legislation exempted religious institutions from the nondiscrimination law, religious institutions themselves changed their own thinking about segregation and discrimination. By the time the Bob Jones decision was handed down, Christian universities that argued for a biblical interpretation in favor of racial segregation were a tiny minority of the Christian voice in higher education.
None of this legislative or jurisprudential history exists for LGBT claims.
Moreover, in the 30 years since Bob Jones, we have not seen the IRS make a similar move against religious universities in any area. There is no reason to believe that the IRS would suddenly decide to deny tax-exempt status to religious universities that argue as part of their foundational beliefs that homosexuality violates God’s law.
Second, if the IRS were to make such a move now or in the future, it would not be successful. The Obergefell majority specifically said that it was not willing to limit religious freedom. Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, focused on the concern of religious institutions. After stating that Obergefell relates only to a situation in which no harm occurs to others, Kennedy explicitly addressed religious organizations. He said that the First Amendment ensures that they are given “proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
What did Justice Kennedy mean? Why do his words hold such significance, particularly since the dissent in Obergefell said religious institutions ought to be worried? The answer lies in the tests used in constitutional jurisprudence that highlight the relationship between the Bob Jones and Obergefell decisions.
The Bob Jones court applied the strict scrutiny test, concluding that even though the First Amendment protects religious liberty, religious freedom is not absolute. In this case, where the government wanted to elevate the protection of racial groups over the protection of religious groups, the government had to show two things. It had to show that it had a compelling interest and it had to show that it had taken a very restrictive, narrow path to achieve its compelling interest. This is a high bar, and the Supreme Court uses it to review only certain discrimination claims -- like those based on race.
In Bob Jones the Supreme Court said this: “The government's fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners' exercise of their religious beliefs.”
That language is important because the strict scrutiny test is the gold standard when courts look at legislation that limits the rights of people or groups. Every group that wants protection wants the strict scrutiny test to be used, LGBT groups included. But we have not had any ruling that LGBT claims should receive strict scrutiny despite decades of litigation asking for it. Even gender discrimination doesn’t receive a test that high after a century of debate.
Furthermore, in Obergefell the Supreme Court was careful to avoid any language that could be used to further develop LGBT claims when they bump up against religious freedom claims. The Obergefell Supreme Court used no tests and no levels of scrutiny. This was frustrating for those of us looking for guidance about how LGBT claims should be handled in the future but with respect to religion it showed a clear preference to elevate religious freedom protection. One has to look back only as far as last year’s Hobby Lobby case to see how eager this Supreme Court is to protect the religious freedom of churches, educational institutions and even for-profit businesses.
This isn’t, however, the end of the story. There is a lot more litigation to come. Most of the litigation will be about employment rights for LGBT people outside of religious institutions, and some of it will be about protecting the rights of LGBT consumers from businesses that want to refuse service to them. These are not cases that involve universities. The cases that do involve universities will likely start with outside accreditors for professional programs at Christian institutions. Without better political discussion, I think the litigation is going to get nastier before it solves tensions between groups. That will hurt us all.
I teach at an evangelical institution. I believe in both legal protection for LGBT claims and protection for religious freedom. I recognize that there can be a tension between these two and I know that many religious institutions are working hard to figure out how they should handle these matters with justice and care for all voices. It isn’t easy.
And it isn’t just faith-based universities that have to consider this balance. State colleges and universities want to accommodate the rights of LGBT students and employees, and they have to accommodate rights of conservative Christians -- it’s required by the First Amendment. We all have to figure this out together and it is going to take compromise by everyone.
I think litigation is a bad way to balance the rights of groups of people. In these cases we have two small groups, each believing it has been misunderstood and discriminated against at different times in American history. Litigation will hurt them; political compromise between them provides at least some room for them to control the conversation. These groups need to talk to each other, listen to each other and help the nation figure out a way to accommodate both their interests.
By the year 2000, Bob Jones University eliminated its racially discriminatory policies, and by 2008 it had issued a formal apology for the damage it had done to people of other races. Conservative religious groups need to recognize that religious freedom does not mean they exist in a vacuum and can do whatever they want to. They need to learn from others in society, and they have a responsibility to people who differ from themselves. At a minimum conservative groups should refrain from criticizing Christian institutions that have carefully considered this matter and have decided to end policies that discriminate against gay Christian employees. Furthermore, because I have been writing in this area for so long, I know of many closeted gay employees at many conservative Christian universities. These employees are beloved by their communities but they are afraid to be open about who they are. Christian institutions need to create a safe place for their own employees and invite them to teach the rest of us what life has been like for them.
And LGBT advocates cannot forget that their own desire to live according to who they are as humans is exactly the same as what conservative Christians want. Majority rule without concern for small voices has hurt the LGBT population for centuries. The LGBT folks I talk to realize this and are quite loath to condemn others who differ from them. They believe in compromise and often are willing to talk with conservative Christians when they have a safe space where both sides come together to try to get to know each other.
The only way to address these challenges is in careful discussion. We have to get to know each other, to listen to each other. Both groups would benefit from conversation about what it means to be a small voice in a pluralistic, democratic nation. And then my bet is that they would have something to teach the rest of us about compromise and tolerance.
What better place to have these conversations than an educational setting?
Julia K. Stronks is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair and a professor of political science at Whitworth University. She has written several books and articles on the relationship between faith and public policy including Law, Religion and Public Policy: A Commentary on First Amendment Jurisprudence (2002).