America's diverse ecology of higher education, with its trade schools, junior colleges, private and public schools, and elite research institutions, is the envy of the world. Its many points of entry allow people at many stages in their lives, with vastly different levels of academic preparation, to obtain advanced learning. Along with immigration, it explains the American paradox of having some of the dumbest K-12 schools in the West but the world's smartest economy.
Sure, it costs money, with tuition having doubled in real dollars since 1970. But dollars handed out in financial aid has increased more than nine-fold, or nearly five times the rate of increased tuition. The result: Six million more Americans were studying in institutions of higher learning in 1998 than in 1970.
A success story, to be sure . . . or not. According to a just released report, Unequal Opportunity: Disparities in College Access Among 50 States, America faces a challenge: There is unequal access to colleges and universities across its vast territory.
The report comes from the $1 billion Lumina Foundation, which got $770 million two years back when Sallie Mae purchased the USA Group, a large servicer of student loans. The study's purpose, its sponsors admit, is to secure more taxpayer money for higher education.
I asked Derek Price, Lumina's director of higher education research and co-author of the study, about the generally happy terrain of higher education in America. "You're comparing apples to oranges," he replied. "Those are national averages. They don't take into account student income differences. They don't take into account that colleges might be more costly in some states than others. That financial aid is more or less in different states."
So not all states offer the exact same educational options, and poor people have a harder time affording college than rich people do. Those are penetrating insights, on par with the shocker that there are more banks in wealthy neighborhoods than in poor ones. Says Price, "Even at the institutions we consider the most affordable -- public colleges and universities -- and especially four-year institutions, low-income students must borrow money to make these institutions affordable more often than their median income peers."
That's not the same as saying that every state doesn't provide options for even its poorest residents to attend college, or that a single American is prevented from attending college due to high tuition costs.
The study's findings are instructive. In order to be "accessible," schools must admit students who rank between the 25th and 75th percentiles of its high school graduates in grades and test scores. For the 14 states that score highest in the report, 90 percent of public schools are accessible. In the lowest-ranking states, one in four is. Virginia, a commonwealth with a truly impressive system of public higher education, is relegated to the least accessible list. That doesn't mean its college-bound citizens face a shortage of acceptable options. It simply offers too many selective schools as well, from the College of William and Mary to Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia to George Mason University.
Unlike homelessness or erectile dysfunction, there doesn't seem to be a lot of victims suffering from the affliction Lumina has identified. The study doesn't produce one person who was unable to pursue higher learning due to its cost. The media have tried to rectify that, but their efforts have been pretty lame. ABC's Peter Jennings, for example, gave us Bill McGreevy, 1998 college graduate, to bring water to our eyes. McGreevy has been paying off student loans for two years, and he doesn't expect to wipe out his $10,000 balance for another five. "These students, when they graduate, may not be able to buy a car, may have their home purchase choices limited," Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, fretted to ABC.
Interestingly, even representatives of study's target beneficiaries -- schools who stand to get more dough should this be elevated to Osama or even Enron crisis levels -- slam the effort. Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education, worries that the study will reinforce the widely held belief that college is more expensive than it actually is. (This perception is probably one of the largest actual impediments to higher education.)
"The study misrepresents reality, misleads readers, and harms the very families the foundation is trying to help," says David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Warren points out that 40 percent of students at private institutions come from families that earn less than $40,000 a year, the very people for whom such schools are supposed to be out of reach. "The report is much like a weatherman who forecasts rain, but fails to see the sun shining outside his window." For sure, but then the point of the study is not to document the weather, but to make it rain tax dollars.