The United States is rapidly abandoning a longstanding policy aimed at keeping college affordable for all Americans who qualify academically. Thanks to a steep decline in aid to poor and working-class students and lagging state support for the public college systems that grant more than two-thirds of the nation's degrees, record numbers of Americans are being priced out of higher education. This is an ominous trend, given that the diploma has become the minimum price of admission to the new economy.
Greg Winter of The Times reported yesterday that the federal government has rejiggered the formula that determines how much families have to pay out of pocket before they become eligible for the student aid package, which consists of grants and low-interest loans. The new formula, which will save the government about $300 million in federal aid under the Pell program, will cause some lower-income students to lose federal grants entirely. The families of others will have to put up more money before they can qualify for financial aid. Perversely, single-parent households will have to pay more than two-parent households before they become eligible.
The federal Pell Grant program, which is aimed at making college possible for poor and working-class students, has fallen to a small fraction of its former value. The states, meanwhile, have trimmed aid to public colleges, partly as a consequence of soaring Medicaid costs. The states have deepened the problem by shifting need-based tuition to middle-class and upper-class students under the guise of handing out so-called merit scholarships.
The political clamor around the new formula is likely to lead to changes, but they will be aimed at upper-income families who are most able to pay. Tinkering with formulas in Washington will not solve this problem. The nation as a whole has been disinvesting in higher education at a time when college has become crucial to work force participation and to the nation's ability to meet the challenges of global economic competition.
Until the country renews its commitment to making college affordable for everyone, the American dream of upward mobility through education will be in danger of dying out.