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Democratizing Higher Education: Follow The Money

March 10, 2008

Alan Finder wrote an article for this past weekend’s New York Times that depressed me. The main subject of the piece suggests a superficial reason for my consternation. Titled “Math Suggests College Frenzy Will Soon Ease,” Finder documented a forthcoming dip in college seekers.

The primary reason behind the future lull is demographics. If I were an admissions officer, this coming change might concern—but not depress—me. A graphic accompanying the article suggests that after a trough from 2009 to 20015, applications will rise again. Some of the factors behind the dip, including which markets will be hit hardest, are very interesting. Here are a few salient paragraphs:

– “The demographic changes include sharp geographic, social and economic variations. Experts anticipate, for example, a decline in affluent high school graduates, and an increase in poor and working-class ones. In response, colleges and universities are already increasing their recruitment of students in high-growth states and expanding their financial-aid offerings to low-income students with academic potential.” …
– “Nationally, the population decline is projected to be relatively gentle, with the number of high school graduates expected to fall in the Northeast and Midwest, while continuing to increase in the South and Southwest.”
– “The number of white high school graduates will go down nationally, and the number of African-American graduates will remain relatively steady. But the number of Hispanic and Asian-American graduates will increase sharply, according to projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, whose demographic estimates are highly regarded by admissions officials.”

This suggests, of course, that higher education in the North and Northeast will be hit disproportionately hard. Hopefully all institutions in those regions (including my current employers) are preparing for the worst.

Now comes the crass, depressing nadir of the article. As Finder documented admissions’ officers feelings on these preparations, the bottom-line became clear:

– “And so admissions officials are scrambling to attract Hispanic and low-income students, who have been underrepresented at the most prestigious private and public universities. Colleges in the Northeast and Midwest have particularly intensified their efforts to strengthen alumni networks and make themselves better known at high schools in fast-growing states like Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Colorado. Cornell sent an admissions officer to live full-time in Los Angeles.
– “It’s kind of a demographic perfect storm in some ways,” said Robert S. Clagett, dean of admissions at Middlebury College. “Because where the increases are going to come are in states where the college-going rate is lower and where those who do go to college primarily stay in the state.”
– “Colby College and a number of others in the North have also begun to offer airplane tickets for low-income high school students and their parents from Sun Belt states to visit their campuses. Last summer, Middlebury and Williams flew in 27 college counselors from states where the colleges are not well known.”
– “It was nice for me to see the campuses and say to our kids, This is what they are like,” said Sharmon Goodman, director of college counseling at One Voice, a nonprofit group in the Los Angeles area that identifies and prepares low-income students with the academic potential for elite colleges. [Here’s an LA Times “School Me” weblog entry that features Goodman and One Voice.]
– “Many colleges anticipate having to dig deeper to attract more low-income students. This is among the prime reasons why many of the most selective institutions have been in a race to significantly expand their financial aid to poor and working-class students.
– “When Harvard recently increased financial aid packages, it wanted “to send a really clear message out there to people who would not ordinarily apply to college, much less apply to a school like this,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College.
– “Our theory is if we’re really going to succeed, and not just Harvard, at increasing the college-going rates of people in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the economic ladder, then you’re going to have to be really aggressive in your outreach,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said.”
– “The new recruiting strategies take many forms. Bucknell, Cornell, Amherst and the University of Michigan are among eight colleges and universities to receive grants from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to create partnerships with community colleges; the goal is for some of the most promising graduates of two-year schools to transfer to the elite universities for their last two years of college.”


All of this activity, both present and anticipated, begs a few questions: Why hasn’t this happened already? Why haven’t middle and upper-tier institutions cared about poor and underprivileged applicants before now? Sigh.

So, as is usual in the United States, it takes money and the fear of a dip in income to cause higher education to take note of the lower classes. It figures that any true democratization of higher education here will come only as a reaction to supply and demand—the whims of capitalism. At least there are organizations like One Voice, promoting social justice until the money changers take notice.

If all of this truly plays out, the hopeful side of me thinks that perhaps we’ll be able to speak of the 2015-2025 period as the true democratization of American higher education? Right now most historians of higher education view the 25-30 years after World War II as that period. That’s certainly true for white folks, and perhaps a modicum of African Americans. This future period looks like it might add Asian and Hispanic Americans to that list.

Right now, however, I’m awash with cynicism. -TL

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  1. Me too, TL, me too. Cynicism may be a sorry kind of wisdom, but can there be any other in the face of higher education as business?


  2. CM,

    But if we socialize higher education, then we'll get a system like France's, yes?

    Do we truly have the best higher education system in the world? That seems to be the current opinion. Are our golden years behind or in front of us?

    – TL


  3. TL: I am not convinced that our higher education system is the best in the world. I think it is only true of our graduate programs.

    One thing the article did not mention is that declining high school graduation rates are another reason why college enrollments are going down.

    If there is any silver lining in these reports, it may be that the demand for new history faculty will likely increase in the Southwest and Southeast.


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