The value of education: Many are still kept from the benefits of a college degree

Is investment in higher education a good value? Should the federal government attempt to control the use of federal financial aid, advantaging some colleges over others?

These are questions at the core of President Barack Obama’s new plan for higher education. It is important to use personal, state and federal resources wisely. On that we agree. The plan, however, holds unintended consequences for those in greatest need of federal student aid.

The premise of the plan — to constrain “costs” of higher education — misses an important point.

Why has public university tuition increased and, therefore, student and family debt? It isn’t because the cost has increased. It is because state investment in public higher education has decreased dramatically.

In 2006, 70 percent of the cost of education per student at the University of Washington Tacoma was borne by the state. Seven years later, 30 percent of the cost is borne by the state. Students used to be responsible for 30 percent; now they are responsible for 70 percent.

This pattern is repeated at other public colleges in Washington and in most every state across the country.

Yes, the cost to individual students and their families has increased, but that is not because public universities’ out of control spending.

Is it still worth it? Even at the higher tuition?

Absolutely, both for the individual student and the community.

Individuals who graduate from college find better jobs, earn more money, suffer less unemployment and are healthier than those who graduate only from high school.

A recent study demonstrates that over a lifetime of work, men will earn $1.1 million more than they would have with a high school degree alone, and women will earn $636,000 more than they would have with a high school degree alone.

Even at the higher tuition levels, the investment pays off 18 times over for men and 10 times over for women.

Positive consequences are even greater for communities when their citizens are college educated.

Because of the combined benefits of lower use of public assistance, lower crime rates and greater taxes paid, the return to public investment is striking: In Texas, it was found to be $4 for every $1 invested, and in California, the net return was $3.65. These calculations don’t even begin to count the intangibles of greater civic involvement, more support for the arts and other benefits that come from higher levels of educational achievement.

Since both individual and community benefit from higher education, each would like the other to pay the lion’s share of its costs. No surprise there. However, while we’re figuring out which party should pay what, let’s not under-invest. That’s not good for students, and it’s not good for community.

Let’s also recognize that a strength of our higher education system is its many choices. Not every college is right for every student.

In its present form, financial aid allows students to choose the college where they are most likely to succeed. Sometimes they make the wrong choice, and sometimes low-integrity institutions try to take advantage of them. But in attempting to protect federal investments, Obama’s plan appears to go too far in limiting student choice, especially for those students who already have fewer choices because of their circumstances.

Federal Pell grants, Washington state’s need grants, and the UW’s Husky Promise program all are transformational in providing opportunity for poorer students. I am proud to be part of a community that is very generous in providing scholarship support for students attending the UWT, Pacific Lutheran University, the University of Puget Sound, and community and technical colleges in the South Sound.

Should universities be held accountable for their graduation rates? Absolutely. But is this easy to do without increasing inequality? Not at all.

In the late 1990s, I was called to testify to the Legislature as the lead for all three UW campuses on the question of accountability. Lawmakers wanted the UW’s four-year graduation rate to increase even though it was the highest of any public university in the state.

Good idea – but the quickest way to make that happen was to accept students who had no financial need and could study full-time.

I asked, “Do you want the UW to turn away from students who are poor, who study part-time because they must work?”

“Of course not,” they replied.

It isn’t the number of years that matters in terms of good stewardship of resources; it’s the number of credits. While making sure to use resources wisely, let’s take care to get the question – and the answer – right.

We want to make sure that a college education is attainable for all students who have worked hard to prepare themselves for it, regardless of their financial circumstances.

This is the essential element of access. If institutions that enroll more privileged students are unintentionally given an advantage in federal support, poorer students will lose out.

In Obama’s plan, there is an unintended perverse incentive for institutions to limit access to the less privileged. But because less advantaged students and their communities benefit even more than privileged students from the benefits that higher education confers, if we get this wrong, we will all lose.

Accountability, absolutely. But with an understanding for the complexity of income differences and an appreciation for the institutions that serve the less advantaged.

Debra Friedman is chancellor of the University of Washington Tacoma.