Have you ever wondered why enrollment in college has continued to rise despite tuition increasing at such a fast rate? While the economic recovery and the bad press on for-profit colleges meant some decline in enrollment in the past couple years, four-year public and private universities still saw enrollment increases. And undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase further still (14%) until 2025. Sure, college is the path to economic mobility and security, but shouldn’t we expect the high price of college to deter more students from enrolling to college?
Well, no. Our narrow interest in increasing access is blinding us to the long-term implications of our current policies.
Here is where it all starts: State aid to higher education has been in decline. As I have explained before, states have not been too worried about the financial implications of their disinvestment in their colleges as they have been relying on the generous availability of federal aid (loans) to students to make up for tuition increases. However, in many cases, tuition increases have not been sufficient; many colleges have been forced to increase enrollment as well; more students means more tuition.
States are pleased that colleges have been resourcefully finding ways to stay financially afloat. To ensure their survival, colleges have hired enrollment management experts, used sophisticated admission algorithms, and engaged in financial aid leveraging to absorb more federal aid and to create the most revenue generating cohorts. Among the strategies generated by colleges was to ‘reach capacity‘, — that is, enrolling more students. This has further pleased states; their lack of investment was not even restricting access, to the contrary, it was increasing it!
But let’s, for a moment, consider the implications of states’ narrow focus on access and think about what this increase in enrollment means. For many colleges, admitting more students means a decrease in selectivity; that is, admitting more low-performing students (often referred to as ‘at risk’). However, few of these schools are equipped to actually graduate these students. Managing more needy students with a tight budget eventually leads to a decline in the quality of education and a decrease in the availability of student support services. As Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA (a member organization for student affairs professionals) explains, balancing a constricting fiscal environment and supporting degree attainment is increasingly a juggling act: “Tuition discounting is at an all-time high. Some people are cutting programs. Some are reducing services.” This further puts more students at risk of dropping out, at a time when colleges’ ability to provide student support is already compromised.
Let’s not forget that most of these low-performing students need to borrow more to afford their education (they are less likely to get merit-based aid, and their families are less likely to pay out of pocket). This all culminates to the worst case scenario, which we are increasingly witnessing:more students with debt but no degree.
Focusing only on college access is a risky and short-sighted move. States should adopt a long-term vision, especially when it comes to their investment in higher education. The economic implications of an uneducated and indebted youth for states are grave. If we do not stop this trend now, it will be harder to revert in the future.