Higher Ed Status Quo Hurts Low-Income Americans Most
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced that for the first time in 15 years, enrollment in higher education has declined. While some of this decline undoubtedly has to do with an improving economy, much of the blame for the dip in college-going can be linked to backwards, regressive policies and practices that continue to plague higher ed.
It’s particularly easy to see when you break down the numbers. While private, nonprofit institutions actually saw a slight increase in students, both the public and the for-profit sector lost ground. There was also a steep decline in students pursuing a credential or a two-year degree. When you consider the typical profile of people who attend those types of institutions, it’s fairly likely that the enrollment losses come from low-income students, who also happen to be the exact people who need education the most.
As such, it’s impossible to ignore the possibility of rising tuition at public institutions as a reason for the decline. Just this week, the College Board issued a report showing a 4.8% increase in tuition at public colleges and universities for in-state students over the last year. That increase in net price is more than twice the rate of inflation. When you’re already scrapping by to afford tuition, even small bumps in the road can knock you off your educational track. As we’ve noted in this space before, raising tuition is a policy decision, not a naturally-occurring, uncontrolled phenomenon. And raising tuition is a policy decision designed to do nothing other than maintain the status quo instead of making changes that would save schools money.
The biggest declines in enrollment were felt at for-profit institutions, which experienced a nearly 3% drop over the previous year. This is an entirely predictable result of the crusade against for-profit institutions waged by Senators Tom Harkin (IA) and Dick Durbin (IL) and the regulations inflicted by the U.S. Department of Education. One of the largest such institutions, the University of Phoenix, announced last week that it was closing 115 locations, displacing 13,000 students and 800 employees in the process. That announcement came a month after a similar one from Kaplan Higher Education, which shed nine of its campuses and consolidated four others.
When you keep driving perceptions that these schools are unsavory and installing regulations that make it difficult for them to operate, declining access to these schools is the only possible outcome. Yet for-profits remain one of the few options for millions of Americans who do not have the flexibility to attend traditional schools or have been wait-listed by public institutions. When you throttle access to for-profit schools, people simply have nowhere else to turn.
Still, it’s possible (but unlikely) that the decline in enrollment has come at the hands of the rapidly expanding massive open online courses, aka “MOOCs”. These free online learning options from the likes of Coursera, EdX, and Udacity have seen a sharp rise in participation from those seeking to gain skills, boost their resumes, or just learn for the sake of learning. While it’s difficult to put an exact number on how many students they serve and how many of them are serious, the three aforementioned organizations have signed up nearly 2 million people.
However, even with programs that cost students literally nothing to participate, we continue to see significant government interference. Just last week, for example, Minnesota decided to clamp down on the nefarious practice of educating people for free. The state’s Office of Higher Education sent Coursera a notice that they were in violation of a state law that prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. Coursera responded by placing the following caveat to their terms of service agreement:
If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.
The state eventually was embarrassed into declaring that they would stop enforcing the law in this case. It’s an outcome that isn’t entirely surprising—after all, Tony Soprano himself would be ashamed of a shakedown that requires you to pay money for the right to give something to the public for free.
Still, the encounter plainly illustrates one elemental truth about higher education that the for-profits have learned the hard way: If you threaten the status quo, we will come after you. Even if we can’t or won’t serve these people ourselves, we will stop you. Even if you do it for free, we will get in your way. THAT is the very definition of a cartel. It’s no wonder we seem to be perpetually yearning for something innovative to happen—because the academic establishment won’t let it.
It’s important to remember that while these policy decisions are predominantly affecting low-income Americans, we are all going to pay the costs in the end. If we can’t close the skills gap and give businesses the talented workers that they need, our economy will suffer. So it’s curious that a time when we need to educate more people, our leaders are hell-bent on making decisions that will only serve to educate less. These decisions will, however, serve to maintain the status quo, and that’s all that seems to matter.
Domenic Giandomenico is Director of Education and Workforce Programs at ICW.
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