America's colleges and universities are in the grip of strong forces.
- Over the past thirty-five years the costs of providing a quality educational experience have grown more rapidly than the overall cost of living.
- Yet in most states, public spending per student at state universities has not kept up with the overall cost of living.
- In the last quarter of the 20th century the American distribution of income became significantly more unequal. The rich became substantially richer while the poor treaded water. Since the turn of the century, real incomes have stagnated for 99 percent of American families.
For private institutions the cost of maintaining the quality of their educational offerings has put upward pressure on tuition. The combination of cost pressure and static or declining state support has caused even larger tuition increases at public institutions. Stagnant family income means that many students face greater difficulty financing these tuition increases without taking on more debt.
The American higher education system is very diverse, and its institutions have different abilities to withstand these pressures. Well-endowed private institutions and selective state flagship universities can adjust more easily to a higher tuition world. Less well-endowed and less selective institutions – both public and private – have faced harsher tradeoffs in adapting to these political and economic forces.
Students from low-income backgrounds disproportionately attend less well-endowed private institutions and less selective state institutions that are increasingly resource starved. If the forces we have described continue unabated, and we do not see changes on the horizon to suggest otherwise, we may see greater divergence of student outcomes in our higher education system. The elite by income and talent will do well and the rest may see narrower opportunities. The American higher education system may reinforce income inequality instead of social mobility.
The conference explores how we might change this outcome. Can we slow the rise in college costs while still maintaining quality? Can financial aid programs do a better job of buffering the changes in the income distribution? Are there any tools that state and federal policymakers might use to turn around state disinvestment in higher education? Can governments at various levels muster the political will to act? And are there ways to get more low income students into the selective schools that are less at risk in the new world?