It's official: cutting aid narrows participation

March 31, 2000

Last week we looked at higher education funding in Australia. This week, Stanley Aronowitz examines the situation in the United States

The American academic system is divided along two axes: private and public schools and research and teaching colleges and universities. The private schools are tuition-driven, with significant funding supplements from donors who are mostly alumni. The public or state schools are largely financed by tax revenues and appropriated by state legislatures and, to a much lesser extent, the federal government.

With the exception of a small municipal college movement in New York and a few other cities - which until the 1970s were free for those who met their rigorous standards - the majority of state schools traditionally charged a nominal tuition fee for state residents.

Then in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the California and New York tax revolts were in full gear and state legislatures were under pressure to cut public funds, many schools determined that their salvation lay in imposing substantial tuition fees.

Throughout the 1980s these measures did not result in a major reversal of opportunities for working-class students, especially for black, Hispanic and older applicants, because student aid was available to pay for the tuition and living expenses needed to sustain their full-time status.

But in the 1990s state and federal cutbacks reduced student aid. More restrictive criteria for eligibility and rising tuition fees have changed the profile of students in state schools.

Moreover, in New York, where a fairly large fraction of recipients of public assistance were attending post-secondary institutions, interpretation by administrators of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 required those on the dole to work 20 hours a week. In many instances they were not permitted to use school attendance as a work equivalent.

Consequently, in the City University of New York (CUNY) some 40,000 students disappeared from the rolls. Administrators also reserved the right to withhold tuition payments if recipients performed below standard.

These developments have resulted in fewer students from families of the working poor enrolling in state schools and a higher academic and social-class profile of those who qualify for admission.

In private schools affirmative action programmes for blacks and other minorities are less likely to target students from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, focusing instead on the middle class, who may not otherwise qualify for admission but are considered likely to qualify for student loans and can be expected to pay full tuition costs.

The cumulative result of these trends has been that the number of black students in colleges and universities, which increased dramatically from 1965 to the mid-1990s, has declined from 9 to 7 per cent at a time when overall enrolments have stagnated at about 14.7 million (10 million full-time).

How has the academic system managed to sustain itself in the wake of declining political commitment to public higher education? With difficulty. At CUNY and the US's largest higher education institution, California State University (not to be confused with the University of California), tuition fees account for more than 50 per cent of revenue, a tacit form of privatisation.

Given the virtual freeze in public appropriations to these and other schools - they have lost 25 per cent of their revenues in real terms since the late 1980s - and the lack of huge research grants from the public and private corporate and corporate foundation sectors, the only solutions to rising costs are to replace full-time with part-time faculties and to raise tuition fees.

At CUNY, tuition fees are $3,600 a year for a full-time student. This, combined with rising admission standards, has resulted in a loss of 20,000 students, or 10 per cent of enrolment - mostly from lower socioeconomic groups - in the past two years.

More than three-quarters of the CUNY student population are black, Asian and Hispanic, half of whom are from families earning less than $20,000 a year. But it seems likely that the social profile of students in this and other public universities will rise. Unless the political environment changes, declining enrolment, especially from the poorest students, is inevitable.

A special commission to study CUNY's problems recently suggested that the university adopt policies to change the composition of the student population from those who desire a college education to only those who are academically prepared, a tacit appeal to shift its racial and class character.

Although the university pledges to maintain the concept of opportunity as a guide to its policies, there can be little doubt of the outcome of ending remedial help for under-prepared students and failing to persuade the state legislature to raise its budget dramatically. 'More restrictive criteria for eligibility

and rising tuition fees have changed

the profile of students in state schools' Stanley Aronowitz is distinguished professor of sociology at the graduate school, City University of New York.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments