Stop Starving Our Urban Public Universities

July 17, 2007


Conflicting pressures have put urban public institutions of higher education that serve large numbers of low-income and students of color in a straitjacket.

Major cities in the U.S. generally have higher concentrations of poverty, communities of color and immigrants than the suburbs do. The problems facing higher education in cities dovetail with other urban problems such as the quality of urban K-12 schools and the socioeconomic status of their students.

Consequently, state-supported urban institutions are being asked -- and have moral and long-term economic imperatives -- to provide more academic and student support services to students coming through pre-collegiate educational pipelines that have not prepared them for college than is true for many other kinds of colleges.

Compounding the problem, we are being presented with increasing performance and accountability mandates. All of this is happening at a time when state funding for those institutions is declining in a scandalous way, yet the pressure on them to keep tuition low is increasing. In short, we are being asked to do more with far fewer resources than ever before.

And the impact will inevitably fall onto our students, those who need it most. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it herself in May: “In too many of our cities, the reality faced by minority and low-income kids is shocking.” Citing urban “dropout factories” and a 50 percent dropout rate for African-American, Latino and Native Americans, Spellings said, “We must ensure the same opportunities available to kids in the suburbs are available to kids in the city. If we don't, we will most certainly become a poorer, more divided nation of haves and have-nots.”

Parallels in Inequality

Many of our urban secondary schools are abysmal, it’s true. Equally unjustifiable, but perhaps no surprise, is that urban institutions of higher education have begun to endure challenges and inequities that mirror those faced by our feeder schools and districts.

In high schools, white students tend to be concentrated in well-performing schools in the suburbs while urban school districts, filled with lower-income and students of color, are deteriorating. At the postsecondary level, white students crowd the more selective state flagship and research universities. Meanwhile, if they go to college at all, students from traditionally underserved backgrounds often attend institutions with less stringent admission standards and lower retention and graduation rates, including community colleges and urban colleges and universities. The rate of college enrollment in the college-age population in cities is about half of what it is in the suburbs.

Options for low-income and students of color, in high school and college, are becoming separate but not equal to those for white students.

Colorado is a prime example of this distributing paradox. We currently rank in the top five per capita for college-degree holders, yet we’re importing our college graduates. The state ranks near the bottom in the number of low-income students and those from underrepresented backgrounds who go to college.

Part of this results from an educational pipeline in Denver that is more than just leaky; it is spitting out young people at an alarming rate. For example, roughly 30 percent of Denver Public Schools’ Latinos graduate from high school; in contrast, 70 percent of whites do. The student-of-color population, which is 80 percent at Denver Public Schools, drops to 48 percent at Community College of Denver, then to 24 percent at Metropolitan State College of Denver, my institution, which has the largest student-of-color population of any four-year institution in Colorado. In fact, Metro State has more students of color than the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University combined.

The Conventional Urban Student

Ethnic diversity has become the holy grail of colleges and universities; everyone is trying to get it. A high-achieving high school student of color is the most sought-after demographic in the college applicant pool. And our more prestigious schools are working to increase their matriculation rates of these students.

But what about the conventional student of color who graduates from an urban high school and whose achievements are more modest? These are the students -- place-bound, often of limited economic status and whose preparation for college is less rigorous -- who are largely served by our public urban institutions. In sheer numbers, they dwarf the students of color who attend the more prestigious institutions.

Urban low-income and students of color are coming to college with severe academic deficiencies, particularly in the areas of writing, mathematics and science. Furthermore, many students from economically challenged backgrounds lack college-going family precedent or role models. It is critical that these students have access to full-time faculty of the same ethnic background to serve as peer mentors, helping them navigate the transition from high school to college.

Postsecondary institutions serving large numbers of low-income and students of color are implementing various strategies to address these students’ academic deficiencies. Enhanced orientation programs, peer counselors, mentors, full-time faculty who teach classes at the freshman and sophomore level, learning communities, increased collaboration with urban high school districts and improved coordination with community colleges are all being implemented or enhanced to provide much-needed support for this cohort of students. However, many of these programs are in jeopardy because of limitations in state funding.

This is the case in point: Urban institutions are being asked to do more and more with less and less.

Funding Declines

The ‘90s was a decade of dramatic growth in state revenues, yet there was a simultaneous shrinking of their colleges’ share of state budgets, as more programs and services began to compete with higher education for funding.

From 1970 to 2000, government appropriations per student for public higher education institutions increased 3 percent in constant dollars. During the same period, tuition and fees per student increased 99 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Colorado, the percentage of the state budget going to higher education dropped from 22.4 percent in 1983 to 7.5 percent in 2007.

At the same time that state funding for higher education has been decreasing, the call for “accountability” in higher education is on the rise. State legislatures are expressing more interest in investing in the explicit results that come from public higher-education institutions, rather than investing in higher education itself. For instance, at a recent summit on higher education in Colorado attended by leaders from all the colleges, one proposal put forth would tie supplemental funding to schools proving they are more efficient than their peers and graduating better students.

With state funding squeezed tighter and tighter, many colleges across the country have been able to maintain the status quo only by raising student tuition and fees. However, in urban institutions that serve larger populations of low-income and students of color, the combination of decreased state funding and the continued imperative for lower tuition means a smaller pool of financial resources from which to draw to educate some of our neediest populations. Some institutions, like Metro State, have a statutory obligation to be accessible and keep tuition low with no corollary mandate for adequate funding to provide necessary wrap-around services for students from underserved backgrounds.

Additionally, in Colorado the relative funding by type of higher education institution has shifted. A recent comparison by the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee showed that in the last six years the amount of money, in general fund and tuition per student full-time equivalency, went up for all institutions in Colorado except Metro State, with only a negligible increase for the community colleges.

These relative disparities occurred despite the fact that the community colleges serve more urban and ethnic minority students than the four-year colleges combined, and Metro State is Colorado’s largest urban institution, most diverse four-year institution and educator of the second-largest undergraduate population in the state.

The Joint Budget Committee wrote, “(T)here has been a reallocation of resources among the higher education institutions, whether part of a clearly articulated statewide strategy or a happenstance of many unrelated decisions.”

What Now?

State legislatures need to start addressing these kinds of inequities, and soon. Leaders in public higher education need to work together to create shared state visions among the research universities, the comprehensive colleges and the urban institutions, particularly to address how states are going to meet the needs of the growing segment of the population that come from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.

This may seem to be just an urban problem, but it’s not because ultimately it affects all of society on a social and economic level.

For example, college graduates earn almost twice that of high school graduates, have greater purchasing power and produce higher tax revenue. In Colorado, if low-income and students of color graduated and were employed at the same rate as other students, it would annually generate an estimated $967 million in additional tax revenue, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher education. Obviously, it is through education that these at-risk students are able to lift themselves to a higher socioeconomic level. Otherwise, their options are limited to clawing and scraping their way ahead in menial jobs or worse.

The problems in our urban K-12 schools are deep and entrenched; they have been there for decades, for a multitude of reasons. Today our public urban baccalaureate colleges are headed down the same path, thanks to the lack of funding, an increasing number of students needing remedial coursework and the shrinking pipeline to good education available to low-income and students of color in this country. If these issues in higher education are not addressed now, they will become as intractable as those at the “dropout factories” Spellings derides.

One is left to wonder whether the precipitous decline of our public urban institutions of higher education would be allowed to happen if the student populations at these institutions were more affluent and more white.


Stephen Jordan is president of Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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