A college education has never been more prized than in the present 21st century. Higher education degrees are seen as the “ticket” to success in American society, and indeed, worldwide as well. Yet with this demand comes a price: the college education is not free, as it was for Colin Powell when he attended CUNY in the 1950s, for example (Powell, 1991). Times have changed, and the cost of higher education is higher than ever (Farrell, 2003).

With the recent economic recessions of 1991-1992, 2001-2002 and the more-recent 2008 downturn, access to higher education has been challenged by rising tuition costs. As the economy struggles and governments look to cut back budgets, the education consumer must bear more of the financial burden when it comes to paying for their college education. According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, “In economic storms past, the nation’s college campuses often served as a lifeboat. Young people studied while waiting out hiring lulls, and the unemployed went back to learn new skills. Not this time. Declining house values, investment market meltdowns, credit tightening, government budget shortfalls, and rising joblessness are causing unprecedented turbulence for the nation’s colleges and students” (Clark, 2008). Many potential consumers of higher education cannot afford to pay the rising tuition costs without some kind of aid. When the government cuts aid, this creates a gap in access, which is detrimental to both higher education and society itself. Without the diversity that inherently results from broader access, higher education cannot maximize its vast potential and continue to lead society into the 21st century: if higher education continues to be “… disproportionately accessible to people from advantaged backgrounds who can pay their way, we will have failed to meet our responsibilities for social justice and equity, and even more sobering, will have made more likely an international struggle of the haves and have-nots of the most devastating sort” (Lawrence, 2006).

Therefore, a commitment to federal funding of student financial aid must be maintained in order for the U.S. to maintain and improve its higher education system in terms of diversity and quality. Leadership in higher education administration must drive this commitment, for as “captains of the ships”, they have the unique opportunity to steer the entire academic “fleet” (i.e., the U.S. Department of Education) in the right direction on the issue of student financial aid. With a commitment to student financial aid for all who seek opportunity and have demonstrated the ability and the drive to succeed, the U.S. Department of Education can ensure not only the survival of the American education system but the status of the U.S. overall as the world leader.

Background

Harvard University established the first “scholarship” in 1643, beginning the concept of student financial aid in American higher education. The idea behind the scholarship was to provide extended learning opportunity to someone who could not afford to pay standard tuition (Rentz & Saddlemire, 1988). In the 374 years since, the federal government has assumed the role of the student financial aid provider for the largest number of students. With programs like the GI Bill in 1944, the federal government opened doors of opportunity for many men and women who otherwise would not have been able to afford college tuition (Gladieux, 1995). With the Cold War crisis of confidence brought about by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1958, a new federally sponsored loan program provided opportunity for students in fields considered vital to national interests (Gladieux, 1995). As the 1960s progressed and President Johnson’s “Great Society” vision started to become a reality, Title IV finalized this progression of aid programs to the point of directly providing opportunity to all students in need.

In the 49 years since Title IV, the Trio programs and Title IX have enhanced opportunity for equity in funding along lines of diversity. While the former was a needs-based program for economically disadvantaged students, the latter was an effort to increase gender opportunity (Gladieux, 1995). As the meaning of the word “diversity” has expanded now to incorporate non-traditional students (i.e. students over the age of 25 entering college for the first time or re-entering after a long absence, for example), it is more important than ever that various federal student aid programs remain in place and actually increase aid to deserving students in need. These non-traditional students in need also include single parents, part-time students who need to work full-time, and students with learning and physical challenges.

As a result, “Policymakers remain concerned that the financial aid system is insufficiently sensitive to the wide-ranging circumstances of an increasingly diverse postsecondary education group” (Hatfield, 2003). As more students seek aid, the “competition” for available dollars becomes problematic (Gladieux, 1995). Since the basic principle of financial aid is to provide increased access to higher education for students from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds (Lee, 1999), the commitment to federal financial aid must be increased, both in access and actual dollars. More students than ever need the aid, and the federal government must meet this need to ensure the survival of the American Dream, the cornerstone of the belief in the U.S. sociopolitical systems.

Key Problems

Due to a variety of factors – including faculty salaries, nation-wide economic recessions, etc. – the ability to pay for a college education is more difficult than ever. Yet students are going to college in larger numbers than ever before as well, as in the past 34 years, attendance in higher education has increased by 50% to 17 million students (Gappa, Austin, & Trice, 2005). This number was expected to grow to “20.4 million students by the year 2016, an increase of 15%), many of whom are members of minority and recent immigrant populations who have much more uneven academic preparation for college work” (Immerwahr, Johnson & Gasbarra, 2008).

Since higher education is now viewed as a commodity – “buy” it and you get your golden ticket to the good life – the competition for access has increased with the enrollment numbers. In essence, everyone wants a part of the good life that a college degree promises, but not everyone can afford the entry fee (i.e. tuition, books, etc.). This situation is fueled by a public view that a high return on investment is required (Rhodes, 2001). Therefore, the system is facing an overload of students demanding assistance in order to achieve their American Dream.

Combined with the above, economic struggles in the U.S. since the dot.com fallout and the 9/11 terrorist attacks have left federal and state officials in a bind where they have chosen to limit higher education funding – thereby passing more of the cost onto the consumer who seeks to purchase the commodity. In fact, public higher education tuition increases have reached their highest point in three decades (Farrell, 2003). This has led to the view that the public sector commitment to higher education is in “default” (Travis & Davis, 2000).

The economic woes facing the average U.S. family in these difficult times means less money is available to finance higher education tuition costs. Priorities include shelter, food, clothing and other necessities. Higher education becomes a luxury many wishful students cannot afford (Sander, 2008): “… families are ‘not making a lot of money … They’re surviving well, but it’s a double-edged sword: They’re making a living, but they can’t send their kid to school.’”

When access to higher education is limited, the entire society struggles. Diversity and possibilities are reduced, which infringes upon the chances for academic discovery leading to global breakthroughs that will change the course of history. As the U.S. struggles to keep leading a global community, those who are “different” from past “American norms” improve the capabilities and productivities of the nation. A recent study at Amherst College demonstrated the impact of diversity upon higher education:

“On the whole, important learning did take place, but some students gained much more than others from living in a diverse community. Some students got to know those of different races and classes well; others did not. Thirty percent of the students reported changes in the way they saw people of both different races and classes, and an additional 32 percent reported having learned something about people of either other races or other classes. Of the remaining 38 percent, just over half felt that they had gained something from the classroom comments of peers who differed from them in race and class” (Aries, 2008).

The generalizability of this study may not be universal, but it is a solid representation show that interaction with diverse members of a community benefits everyone. The biggest benefactors are those who will enjoy the fruits of diversity’s “labor” in the years to come when higher education is more diverse than ever and the products of this “commodity” system reach the workforce and become tomorrow’s leaders.

In the end, it’s all about money. As the Clark article shows, families and students today are under unique financial strain. There is no extra money to afford the “luxury” commodity of higher education when there are mortgages to be paid and mouths to feed. Survival is the new status quo, and without a re-commitment to increase funding aid to students, higher education will suffer for the lack of access during this economic recession.

Alternatives

Many solutions have the potential to solve the tuition funding challenges outlined above. But many of them constitute wishful thinking or extreme optimism. They are either impractical, improbable or too idealistic to work effectively in solving these challenging problems facing the country and its higher education systems.

College campuses can continue to cut costs in an effort to make education more affordable. For example, at Educause 2008, Lev S. Gonick, vice president for information-technology services and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, suggested colleges would resort to creative cost-cutting, including collaboration to share IT services (Gonick, 2008). Cutting IT costs would certainly save money and enable campuses to trim their budgets, defraying less of the growing cost of higher education onto the tuition needs. However, there are a few problems with this plan of action: cutting IT is one thing, but soon, it means the individual campuses will be offering watered-down products in an increasingly-competitive market. Why go to Case Western if they’re sharing IT services with four other Pennsylvania campuses? While that’s just an example of thought, it is the kind of question prospective students will ask themselves. The lower tuition may attract many students, but the watered-down resources (i.e. cutting back on the value-added services offered on campus) will also turn away many students who can afford to be financially choosy with their college enrollment. And despite the obvious slippery-slope nature of this argument, once campuses start cutting in one key area, more cuts will follow – creating even more of a washed-out experience for the students who attend such campuses. The quality of the commodity erodes, and the consumers go elsewhere still. This methodology truly solves nothing, for making a mediocre product affordable still means the product is mediocre.

With leadership change in the White House often comes economic climate change for the country. U.S history is replete with examples of the economy rebounding after a change in the executive office. In the 20th century alone, there were several obvious examples:

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, and the Great Depression is over by the time he left office;
  • Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, and the recession of the late 1970s – complete with gas shortages and low national morale – faded into history as “Reaganomics” brings back the U.S. economy;
  • Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, and the recession of the early 1990s under George H.W. Bush is soon a thing of the past as the technology sector pushes the U.S. economy to new highs.

Economic change certainly doesn’t happen overnight, but with the 2008 election of Barrack Obama to the U.S. Presidency, higher education firmly placed its faith in a chief executive officer of the U.S. government who values higher education. In addition to the above trends, President Obama chose higher education faculty to serve in key positions, including University of California professor of economics Christina D. Romer as chairman of his administration’s Council of Economic Advisers (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2008) and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond to lead a transition team on education policy (Asimov, 2008). This meant that higher education had his ear, and that influenced policy from the top of the federal government on down. Generally, when the economy is good, higher education benefits from the situation (D. Kassing, personal interview, February 13, 2004). In this sense, change in the White House could inspire confidence. Obama was the kind of politician people really believed could bring about true change, even in the face of a challenge. As Harry S Truman put it in the book Where The Buck Stops, edited by his daughter Margaret and published posthumously, “a President who can make up his own mind, who isn’t afraid of controversy, who doesn’t allow himself to be held back by some of the limitations other people try to place on the presidency, and who doesn’t even allow himself to be held back by certain limitations …” (81). Obama definitely fit that mold. However, this was not a “shoo-in” for higher education, either, as many economic problems can take higher priority on the agenda (Basken, 2008). It is possible that a firm belief in higher education’s ability to stimulate the economy simultaneously could impact these problems, but putting the eggs in the “possible” basket just isn’t enough.

A Democratic Congressional majority means more funds will be coming to higher education. Logic dictates that the Democratic Party is the “party of the people”, and since there is clearly a majority of politically progressive faculty in higher education, the two entities seem like “good friends”. As this “party of the people”, Democratic leadership in Congress is seemingly the perfect position to change education policies that haven’t worked as well as everyone had hoped. Combining forces with a Democratic President with a strong background in education, Congress was poised in 2008 to improve the education policies over the next four years. However, problems with the Pell Grant allocations for 2009 caused problems for 2010 and beyond, even with the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill and the new presence in the White House (Field, 2008). In fact, Pell Grants faced a reduction in the maximum amounts for 2009. Congressional business is a complex business, and no assumptions can be made about the changing political climate and its seemingly positive effects on higher education funding. Now, in 2017, with a Republican President and a Republican Congressional majority, we’ve already seen damage done to public education through the laughable appointment of an Education Secretary with no experience or graduate degree in actual education.

A more socialist education system would fix a lot of the problems facing higher education today. In a 1991 article, “Socialist Education?”, Joel Samoff offered the following ideas: “Access to educate expanded rapidly. Schooling became more important than clan, kinship, region, ethnicity, race, religion, and connections in employment and recruitment to positions of authority. An essentially egalitarian society became imaginable” (Samoff, 1991). On paper, the idea of trying to make higher education more like K-12 education in this country is appealing, but in reality, the pervasive thought is still that higher education is not a right. Without changing that eternal definition, higher education access only can be improved through a change in the philosophical: higher education can be an attainable opportunity for all who seek it. Furthermore, if there are funding issues now with higher education, seeking a complete overhaul of the system in this fashion would require a financial commitment this country isn’t capable of making, even if it wanted to do so. The utopian vision of higher education as a right will remain just that for the foreseeable future.

Proposed Solution

Ultimately, campus leadership needs to converge on the new federal leadership to commit itself anew to the defining aid policy of the 21st century. The U.S. federal government has a responsibility to assist its citizens, perhaps uniquely so. An impending change in federal government policy is possible, due to the change in the Oval Office.

Campus presidents – past, present and future – believe in their organizations. They have already expressed the repeated need for increased funding: As Nannerl O. Keohane puts it in her book Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University, “Education is a social good that provides major advantages for everyone, not just those who benefit directly, and our society should take significant responsibility for funding it, through both state and federal resources” (Keohane, 2006). This need for a renewed commitment is huge. Emblematic of a new era in American politics where an individual of African descent rose to the top of the United States government, the federal commitment to higher education must ensure the access to diverse individuals now to guarantee the continued opportunity for future Americans.

Overall, opportunity for financial aid needs to be widespread and guaranteed for anyone who meets qualifications of entry (whatever those may be for whatever institution – each has to set its own according to its own). Higher education serves social purpose: enriching society through the present and the future. Harold T. Shapiro, former president at Princeton, states the following in his book A Larger Sense of Purpose: “At Princeton, for example […] We came to believe that in order to more fully meet our public purpose, we would need to dramatically expand our student financial aid program, substitute grants for loans, make our full financial aid program available to students from abroad, and provide additional opportunity through a modest expansion of our undergraduate enrollment” (Shapiro, 2005). Most effective for an ever-growing and ever-changing society, higher education must keep pace with access opportunities for more individuals than ever. For this funding aid to become a reality, affordability also has to come for the ride. The two issues are intertwined, since access for many depends on financial possibility. Financial capability should not be a requirement for access to higher education; intellectual capability, desire and pro-activity should be the requirements. Affordability isn’t just about aid; student debt is unavoidable in most cases, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the norm, either. Between providing funding (loans or grants) to interested students of all levels at affordability levels to students of all dispositions, higher education can be more diverse than ever.

A key element to this proposed solution is the return-on-investment for the U.S. government. While some students will receive grants for exceptional work and ability, the students must repay the aid dispersed in loans in order to justify this solution to the government and the people. Recent bailouts of major corporations are causing debate and division; this suggests that the American people wouldn’t necessarily choose to bailout those who borrow money for education, either. Accountability for the student loans must be enforced, for it not only repays the government for its faith in its own people, but it teaches responsibility to graduates and gratitude to the government for its aforementioned faith. The repayment plans don’t need to be harsh, but they need to be enforced and maintained to the benefit of all involved. As Lawrence notes in his observations of financial crises, “… like many difficult conditions, it forced everyone to work harder, smarter and with much greater shared responsibility for the success of the enterprise, to be more conscious of their high performance goals, and more focused and determined in the actions they took to reach them” (Lawrence, 2006). This includes not only the higher education administration and faculty, but also the students who benefit from their experiences in higher education as they move forward as societal contributors.

In the end, to make access and affordability work, the right leadership is needed: experienced men and women with vision for progress and expansion of education to every frontier that exists. Ideas cannot exist in a vacuum; people with the skill and the commitment to improve higher education must implement these ideas. These individuals must be able to rally the troops around them, get entire organizations focused on a mission and then use all their abilities to meet those goals – for their organizations as a whole and for the students everyone who seek to better their own lives and improve society by attending an institute of higher learning.

Federal policy must establish new and increased funding aid for students at a historical landmark level. The government must re-invest in its people like it never has before, and the leadership of individual campuses across the country need to join together to bring about this change. As Keohane writes, “Renewed commitment to need-based financial aid and making university, government, and social resources available to support this priority” (Keohane, 2006) is more important than ever. If the government can afford to bailout numerous corporations in multiple vertical industries during this fiscal crisis, they can also afford a “bailout” of the higher education funding aid system to ensure there will be qualified workers for tomorrow’s revived economy.

Recommendations

James B. Hunt, Jr., is the former, four-term governor of North Carolina, and he writes of the land grant acts of the 19th century and the GI Bill of the 20th century as major education initiatives in this country before asking two key questions: What will be that initiative for this century? What will be the groundbreaking policy for the present situation? (Hunt & Tierney, 2006). The response to the original inquiry becomes somewhat circular: a firm re-commitment to student aid programs that surpass everything that has come before. When affordability and access are broader, quality inherently will increase with higher enrollments. To revisit Keohane’s comment, “Education is a social good that provides major advantages for everyone, not just those who benefit directly, and our society should take significant responsibility for funding it, through both state and federal resources” (Keohane, 2006).   The U.S. federal government, built of representatives of citizens from all 50 states, must commit itself to this significant policy shift. There is no time like the present to re-invest in the present and the future of this country’s higher education system. Like the land-grant movement (1862) and like the G.I. Bill (1944), the time is now for the 21st century landmark education movement.

While the student looks to higher education to return the investment of tuition to them down the line in salary and success, the federal government must look to students to return their investment of aid down the line in continued American ingenuity and entrepreneurial advancement in the new global realities. Higher education is responsible, as Shapiro notes, for the preservation, transmission and advancement of knowledge (Shapiro, 2005). This country was built upon a faith in the people, a belief that the citizenry of the American colonies was trustworthy enough to lead itself. The same thought needs to be applied to higher education funding aid, so that the U.S. can trust its future once more to the best and brightest amongst its people, regardless of their background. This new initiative, a commitment to providing more access to higher education, is needed for the 21st century. Shapiro refers to higher education as both “responsive servant” and “thoughtful critic” (Shapiro, 2005), and no time is better than the present to listen to the critic in order to receive the benefits of the servant.

The voices are out there in the form of campus leadership past and present, and a U.S. President is in office who claims to fit the mold of a change-bringer, ready to fight for the people. The data is available for the campus presidents to unite together and present Donald J. Trump with landmark policy recommendations for the 21st century, which will include financial funding and aid for every individual who wants to pursue their education beyond K-12. This “bailout” of the sagging U.S. human infrastructure, in the form of massive education funding initiatives, is what the country needs to move forward in this millennium.

Conclusion

Overall, higher education faces the challenge of ensuring its “product” is accessible to as many people who “want” it. This is a basic principle of the supply-and-demand economic realities of world capitalism. Everyone benefits: the government invests in its future, while the individual does the same. Both entities live in a symbiotic world where they are interdependent and tied to each other’s fate, for better or for worse. Shapiro uses the term Non nobis solum – “Not for ourselves alone”. This re-investment in higher education funding aid can shape the future for the world, not just for the United States or those intimately involved in higher education on one side or another. Leadership begins when one first assumes a position of importance: “When it is the proper time for one to lead, he or she will be asked to do so and should gracefully accept” (Gayle, 2003). It is time for the campus presidents to take their initiatives to the U.S. President, and all involved should gracefully accept the responsibility to fund higher education tuition significantly beyond today’s current efforts.

This is about global need. The planet faces many crises, in the forms of geopolitical struggles, environmental challenges and religious animosity. To solve these problems, the best and the brightest are necessary. They need to feed their abilities in the U.S. higher education system, and a mind is a terrible thing to waste if its body can’t afford to go to college. Nothing about this is easy. Former Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti correctly stated, “leadership … is an essentially moral act, not — as in most management — an essentially protective act. It is the assertion of a vision, not simply the exercise of a style” (Weems, 1993). What could be more of a moral imperative than the future of the United States? Indeed, nothing is more important than the preservation of the American way of life, and through the renewed commitment to funding higher education, the self-preservation of American society will be ensured.

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