Helping Those With the Greatest Need

Federal policy needs to change to support our capacity to serve low-income, minority students, write Marybeth Gasman and Gary Rhoades.

June 11, 2009

President Obama recently unveiled his education budget, which includes monies to support low-income students’ college attendance. There are substantially increased funds and new entitlement status for Pell Grant recipients, over 40 percent of whom are students of color. Such policies make sense. They enhance equity and ensure opportunity for the fastest growing segments of our prospective student population. They are an investment in our human capital, in our social and economic future. But if we are to realize the potential of this investment we must complete the equation. We must support the institutions that serve these students. And we must invest in our intellectual capital, the faculty and professionals, the human capacity to accommodate the increased demand that the Obama policies will stimulate. To do that we must think creatively about funding mechanisms.

The principal points of access for low income students and students of color are community colleges, comprehensive state universities, and minority serving institutions. For example, about 16 percent of all African American undergraduates are enrolled at historically black colleges and universities, and about 25 percent of African Americans with bachelor’s degrees earn them at black colleges. Yet Minority Serving Institutions, which serve large numbers of low income students, receive substantially less money from the federal government in terms of grants and at the state level per student than institutions serving higher income students. In other words, we spend the least on those who need it the most. We serve these low income students with higher proportions of lower paid faculty working in part-time and contingent positions. And we pay the price in heightened social stratification and reduced opportunities for these students’ success.

We are selling ourselves short and compromising our future and the president’s goals for college attainment in 2020. The Census projects that by the year 2040 people of color will make up the majority of the country. To the extent that we fail to adequately serve these students we will fall far short of our nation’s future possibilities.

In some states the future is now. A majority of the California population is minority. And for the first time in its history the major point of access to a university education for students, the California State University system, is turning away qualified students by the thousands – even before the increased demand stimulated by increased student aid. The California State University campuses do not have the capacity, in terms of faculty and professionals, to serve the growing numbers of applicants. And California community colleges are being forced to cancel thousands of sections of courses, effectively denying access to higher education to low-income, minority students.

To realize the laudable goals of the Obama administration, we must acknowledge that we have reached a capacity cliff in the academy. But in the midst of budget crises throughout the country, how can we manage to support increased investment in minority serving institutions and institutions that serve low income students, and how can we ensure greater supply of faculty positions to meet student demand?

We offer four possibilities. First, we could provide Title I-like funding for institutional aid, of the sort that President King Alexander at California State University at Long Beach, has called for. In higher education, a major part of our current funding structure focuses on students. We need to balance the equation by emphasizing institutional capacity. Our policy initiatives should be to allocate increased monies to build capacity at institutions that serve low income, minority students, and serve them well.

The second possibility pertains to research grants, which are a major focus of the university funding structure. These grants are disproportionately awarded to more elite institutions. And despite major investment in science, technology, engineering and math fields, young faculty members find themselves diverted from the tenure track to “postdoc purgatory.” We could use some current research monies to support new faculty positions in science, technology, engineering and math in colleges and universities that serve low income and minority populations.

Third, we could offer loan forgiveness programs for new Ph.D. graduates who choose to teach at institutions that serve low income and minority students. The academy focuses too much on compelling students to teach at elite institutions.

Fourth, we could channel a portion of the future profits from companies that have received government bail out monies back into the public higher education infrastructure. Such reinvestment would be a form of repayment to the public over a period of years, reflecting a sense that the massive public investment in these companies should be reciprocated by socially responsible reinvestments.

President Obama has identified important goals. And his administration has begun to fill in one part of the equation for supporting the education of low income and minority students, to the benefit of our collective future. However, we now need to creatively complete the equation, by supporting an expanded supply to meet that demand, by investing in the human capacity of colleges and universities, particularly of minority serving institutions, which serve the underserved. Right now, we have an opportunity to redefine not only the goals of higher education, but the public funding mechanisms by which we can more likely achieve those goals.


Marybeth Gasman is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the chair of the American Association of University Professor’s Committee on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Faculty of Color. Gary Rhoades is the general secretary of the American Association of University Professors and a professor at the University of Arizona.


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