30 Years In: The Evolving Federal Role In Higher Education

Career College Central summary:

  • Despite dramatic tuition increases over the past 30 years, federal data reveals that more low-income students are enrolling in post-secondary education. While advocates say much work remains to be done on access and affordability, they note one reason for the enrollment increase has been the steady availability of federal financial aid. Though federal aid has provided much needed support to the economically disadvantaged, Pell and other programs have become hard-pressed to keep up with tuition increases and make up for declines in state aid. “The minus is that these programs are still underfunded,” notes Cooper.
  • Such are the successes and continuing challenges in federal policy with regards to access to higher education during the past three decades, and, now, a time in which more young adults are seeking a post-secondary education but are concerned about its affordability. In 1984, about one-third of low-income students who completed high school enrolled in college. By 2011, that rate rose to more than half of low-income graduates every year, according to “The Condition of Education,” the U.S. Department of Education’s annual compilation of education data. However, low-income high school graduates are enrolling in college at rates substantially below the enrollment rate for high-income students, of whom more than four of every five enrolled in college immediately after high school in 2011.
  • In response to these trends, policymakers in Congress and the White House have attempted with varied success to promote initiatives to increase access and affordability for all youth, including students of color. In 2007, Pell Grants were funded at $13 billion. Between 2007 and 2011, federal support tripled to more than $41 billion, Education Department data shows. The number of new awards during that time nearly doubled to 9 million, and the average new award jumped by nearly 50 percent to $3,800.
  • Despite these increases, Pell has failed to keep up with rising tuition. According to the American Council on Education, in the early 1980s, a Pell Grant covered nearly the entire cost of a public two-year college and 77 percent of costs for a public four-year college. By 2011, grants covered just 62 percent and 36 percent of costs, respectively. Though Congress has continued to increase the maximum amount of the grant, Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), notes that “the Pell Grant has less and less buying power.”
  • The issue is particularly relevant for students of color, as 60 percent of African-American and half of Hispanic undergraduates rely on Pell Grants to attend school, reports CLASP, via the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

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