How Do We Respond to Declining Economic Diversity in Elite Universities?

Writing in the New York Times earlier this week, columnist David Leonhardt expresses his dismay at the decline in state funding for higher education, the resulting surge in tuition, and the slide in economic diversity at the nation’s top public universities. “The declines in state funding are stunning,” he says. “It’s as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.”

Source: New York Times. Click for legible image.

Judging by the data he presents, Virginia is no exception to the rule. A chart showing twenty “top public universities” includes the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. They are second and third from the bottom ranked by the percentage of Pell Grant recipients. (Federal Pell Grants go to students from lower-income families.) Leonardt’s op-ed also displays graphics showing state funding cuts for higher education since 2008. While Virginia isn’t among the worst of the bunch, it’s isn’t one of the better ones either.

“The net result, to put it bluntly, is bad for the country,” says Leonhardt. “Top state universities are displacing impressive low-income students, who have often overcome troubled neighborhoods and high schools. Many of those students then enroll instead in colleges with fewer resources and higher dropout rates. In the process, the higher-education system becomes a bit less meritocratic.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Leonhardt’s op-ed casts the local higher-ed issues that we’ve been examining here in Bacon’s Rebellion in a national light. Misery loves company. I suppose it’s some comfort to know that what we’re experiencing here in Virginia is part of a national trend, not something uniquely perverse to the Old Dominion.

Why would this trend be national in scope? Clearly, the slashing of state aid to higher ed must be viewed in the context of stagnant state budget revenues nationally, caused primarily slow economic growth, and by the crowding out of state General Funds by Medicaid expenditures. State legislatures find it easier to cut higher-ed spending because colleges and universities — unlike, say, public schools, prisons and state police — have the means to make up the difference by raising tution.

Unless President Trump’s economic policies usher in a new era of growth and prosperity (I’ll let you judge the likelihood of that happening), state budgets will remain chronically stressed. As the population ages, Medicaid expenditures will continue to increase. As Baby Boomer teachers, policemen, and state employees retire en mass, many states will meet a fiscal reckoning in the not-too-distant future as the reality of massively under-funded pension liabilities hits home.

In other words, states’ cruel fiscal choices will not get any easier. State legislatures will continue to nibble away, year by year, at the amount of state support they provide public colleges and universities.

“This country should … be investing more of its resources in education,” writes Leonhardt.

Spending more money is always the answer for some people. Given that such people never advocating spending less on anything, that choice leads ineluctably to higher taxes. Great — educate the middle class. Then run it off with higher taxes.

Here in Virginia and across the nation, we need to challenge conventional thinking about how to provide citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to function in a 21st century society. Perhaps we should re-examine the assumption that a four-year college education is the best path of upward social mobility for lower-income people. So many jobs today require technical training, not a college education. Should lower-income students be encouraged to drop out of the labor market for four years, and rack up debt in the process, in order to enter a four-year institution that the odds say are 50/50 they will never complete?

Instead of spending more on higher education — we spend plenty already — perhaps we should be spending money differently.

Hat tip: Steve Haner.

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9 responses to “How Do We Respond to Declining Economic Diversity in Elite Universities?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding with regard to the mission of higher ed and the funding of it.

    What taxpayers OWE the kids is a minimal bare-bones college education -sufficient for them to become employable in the economy.

    Like health care – we do not pay for any/all expenses or aspirations of folks.
    You get the minimum. Beyond that – it’s on you.

    If you aspire to something more – then more power to you and the country needs more like you – but it’s up to you to earn it – perhaps with your parents help or work your way to obtain it.

    We do not owe people any/all education wishes they have and we certainly do not owe them room and board if they live within commuting distance of a higher ed facility. If you don’t want that one and want one farther away- have at it… on your own or parents dime.

    If you want to decry the out-of-control loan situation – this is where it came from – i.e. the idea that each and every kid has the right to pursue any/all options for education – on the taxpayer dime.

    People blather on and on about “snowflakes” and “liberals” .. but this is an issue where people – on the right also – have lost their freaking fiscal minds…

    we cannot afford the fund everyone to follow their dreams. We give them opportunity and a substantial start – but at some point – they and their parents own the rest of it.

    If this results in more and more de-facto “privatized” higher ed – so be it – let the free market work…

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Perhaps we should re-examine the assumption that a four-year college education is the best path of upward social mobility for lower-income people.”

    actually I cannot believe that Bacon keeps repeating this.

    what are we going to do – deny low income loans while giving loans to higher income?

    what kind of a system would that be?

    how about we give everyone the minimum – 2 yrs in a commuting distance community college – and if the kid and/or his parents want more – go for it… it’ on you – no taxpayer-subsidized loans – go get your own market loans.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    It seems to me that if you attend the University of Virginia and graduate you should be able to repay your college loan. $100,000 at 5% over 10 years requires a payment of about $1,000 per month. The average starting salary for an undergraduate (across all majors) from UVa is $46,053. If I had to guess, the average annual salary over the graduate’s first 10 years of employment is around $75,000.

    So, one more time … why can’t these students borrow the money and pay it back. Their parents may be poor but they won’t be poor.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      They can and do, but there are other consequences – delayed marriage or family formation, inability to borrow for a home or to start a business. This is a big factor in current economic malaise. Nobody should have to run up that much debt at a state-owned institution where the state or donors paid for many of the buildings and the state provides (admittedly shrinking) operational subsidies, supplemented by private gifts, and where the elected officials are ultimately responsible (but apparently not accountable).

      Nobody should discount the value of technical training, “middle skills” that don’t require a bachelor’s. The average starting salary of many of those programs is also $46K or more and can average $75-80K or more (and many of the employers happily pay for additional education.) Just paid a couple of HVAC technicians a nice sum for four hours of labor Friday.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I put myself through UVA. Paid off all loans on time. Yes, it was less expensive back then (even when adjusted for inflation). However, interest rates were sky high and those loans were expensive.

        Given that college students are adults …

        “delayed marriage or family formation” – don’t care
        “inability to borrow for a home or to start a business” – don’t care

        The young adults we call “college students” should be responsible for their own actions.

        Should the state contribute more to education? Yes. But, then again, I think soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines should be paid more too.

        Can people do well with HVAC training? Absolutely.

        Lots of choices for young adults. Go to college by borrowing a lot of money. Learn a trade and make money sooner rather than later. Join the US Marines and carry an M16 into hostile territory.

        If society believes that a 19 year old is mature enough to enlist in the US Marines I guess that same 19 year old is mature enough to understand the consequences of borrowing money to attend college.

  4. Have to agree with Jim and a couple other posters. We’re turning out kids that are not mature, not able to listen or handle different viewpoints, not able to do basic things, from college. Used to, a high school education got you at least some minimum skills. Kids don’t have that now. They’re taking remedial classes in college.

    I could see trying to help high school and that’s to a point. The rest is on your own. India does not molly coddle its kids. Look what they’re turning out in terms of who I see coming over here: well educated, go getters and responsible.

    How is it these kids are so connected with phones, computers, etc. but can’t raise themselves out of their status? My parents didn’t have college educations but there are 5 college degrees among 4 kids. Basically it rolls down to stop expecting from the govt. and start expecting from yourself, maybe your family, etc.

    We owe the people who pay taxes something. If you don’t want to be a taxpayer, why do we owe people something? Look at Medicaid: even that is starting to get work requirements. As one poster said, we can’t afford every one’s dream. That includes health care. We have too few paying in the system and if it went to govt the quality goes down, taxes go up and it would bankrupt everyone. The people who pay for this are rightfully screaming on it. They should.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    The two things we can and should do :

    1. equal opportunity for all – especially for education but also for health care

    2. a minimum basic allocation of resources from taxpayers for education and health – to the extent they enable the recipient to be a productive enough person to take care of their own and family needs and contribute taxes themselves.

    what we confuse – opportunity with entitlement

    what we’re “entitled” to is opportunity and a basic allocation of education – not any/all education for personal edification..

    that’ not the person of taxpayer-funded education.

    the dividing line is between enough education to become an employable participant in the workforce and able-to-take-care of oneself / taxpayer.

    beyond that level – it’s on the individual – and their parents – but they are not “entitled” to an “affordable” tuition for any/all subjects they “want’.

    at some point – it is ON YOU to earn what you WANT –

    and we’ve lost that understanding now think that any kid is ENTITLED to any/all College …

    and now… we are hearing thoughts expressed about not according low-income kids equal access to loans/grants – because … apparently in providing them with equal access – we eating into the pool of available resources to the point where the middle-class kids can’t get “enough” and many of those low-income kids will chew up resources and then fail anyhow.

    That sounds terrible…. perhaps I misunderstand what the sentiment is…

    hmmm ….

  6. […] points out that, according to the Times, UVa and Tech are 2d and 3d from the bottom of the Times’ top twenty […]

  7. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The recovery from the Great Recession has been one of the weakest in U.S. history. This is not to cast stones, but rather, just to note that economy is not growing at pace that is sufficient to support major increases in funding for existing programs, much less to expand programs (sorry Larry). We in Fairfax County hear this regularly from both Supervisors and staff.

    Job growth has been concentrated at low-wage service sector jobs. The population is aging, earning less and spending less. And while we are seeing many extremely well educated immigrants come to the United States, we are also seeing many hardworking people come with little or no education, which, in turn, both suppresses wages for low-income Americans and expanding demand for social services.

    Wall Street no longer funds business growth, but engages in arbitrage and speculation for the benefit of the Industry. We have a large untaxed private foundation industry that often advocates against the interests of ordinary people. Our institutions, colleges, universities, are insular and have virtually no cost controls. Government services, such as transit, are poorly managed and operated. Etc. Etc. Etc.

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