Call it the American Dream cycle. Better educated young people get higher paying jobs, improved lifestyles, build families who consume more per family unit, and raise children who continue the trend. When the cycle works, families in the lower-class become lower-middle-class, then rise to the middle-middle-class, spending power expands and the economy grows.
The formula has been central to the nation's redress to its African American citizens, many still struggling to overcome a legacy of economic exploitation and societal marginalization. Education is critical to the equation, with programs such as Head Start and Affirmative Action designed to offer black youth some socioeconomic traction in a traditionally greased system. Still, the Bush administration targets these programs for termination as manifestations of an overactive state. What's more, as the country's â€œwartimeâ€? economic straits siphon public funds away from colleges and students, the Dream cycle is in danger of braking.
Three powerful converging trends threaten an education crisis for African American students. They are caught between a prioritized war budget; a government seeking to realize the long-held conservative agenda of removing tax burdens on the wealthiest Americans and eradicating social support programs in the balance; and across-the-board tuition hikes at state colleges affected by those policies. Black students at the 50 states flagship universities saw their tuitions increase a total of $28.7 million in 2003, according to a recent analysis by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Given that the 45,000 students at those top 50 schools make up just 5 percent of black students at four-year colleges nationwide, and with an average $1,200 hike per student, the JBHE estimates that overall this group has been asked to pay more than $1 billion in incremental tuition costs.
Adding insult to injury, about a year ago the Department of Education revised the formula for which students qualify for Pell Grants, the federal college assistance program that has long been a boon to lower-income families. The grants are meted out according to families' discretionary (after-tax) incomes. But after the department eliminated deductions families were allowed to count toward qualification, the agency managed to pare some $270 million off Pell awards. The result: it disqualified some 84,000 students from the program and scaled back grant money to an additional 100,000 students.
â€œWith the degree to which the cost of college is escalating and grant funding is not keeping pace with needs, that is going to weigh heavily on people of color,â€? says William B. Harvey, director of the American Council on Education's (ACE) Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity, in Washington, D.C.
Even before the cuts, the Pell program the primary engine of federal student assistance, hadn't been keeping pace with tuition hikes. â€œTen years ago, [a Pell Grant] pretty much paid for your education at a state school,â€? says Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor of the JBHE. â€œNow it might not even cover basic tuition, much less books and board.â€?
Another cycle comes into play here, a vicious one. As Joni Finney, vice president at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (NCPPHE), in San Jose, Calif., puts it, â€œEvery time tuition is raised, you create more demand for Pell Grants.â€?
The Center has tracked an ominous inflation rate among the nation's postsecondary institutions. It found that states increased college funding an aggregate of 1.2 percent for the 2002-2003 college year, down from 3.5 percent the previous year â€” 14 states cut funding â€” even as every state hiked tuition on a national average of 10 percent. Sixteen states raised tuition and required fees by more than that, while 17 spent less on student financial aid. Even community college tuition rose in 48 states, over 10 percent in 10 of them.
The latter is telling, as it affects college prospects for lower-income students who are likely to choose the cheaper rates of two-year community colleges. Tough economic times often see students at state schools â€œopting downâ€? to community college, Finney says, and many seem to be opting out of postsecondary education. In Florida cutbacks in state funding for community colleges have so scaled back courses that some 25,000 students could not enroll in their desired classes. California's CC network enrolled 90,000 students last year, compared with the 175,000 it anticipated. African American students represent around 7 percent of total California CC enrollment, according to the JBHE, and account for 1 in every 14 black students in college in the U.S.
With high school graduating classes growing through at least 2008, it seems a grossly inappropriate time to be short-changing higher education. But the buck does not stop at cash-strapped states. Even as it slashed $85 billion in taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the Bush administration has been ratcheting up federal appropriations for defense and homeland security, while investing nary a dollar in discretionary domestic programs. The government has simply failed to deliver funding promised states, even for such ballyhooed policies as Bush's â€œNo Child Left Behindâ€? initiative.
The onus remains on states to implement mandated federal policies with their own money. This past summer, state governments scrambled to shift funds to balance their budgets. Inevitably feeling the squeeze in such circumstances, says Finney, are colleges, which lawmakers tend to view as buffered by the additional revenue stream of tuition. Hence, nearly universal fee hikes.
The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, slated for this congressional session, will give higher ed proponents a public forum. Yet still, students and universities will be competing for appropriations with an open-ended war and an administrative rigidity toward further investment in citizens who most benefit from these resources. As Bush campaigns to make his tax cuts permanent, and as state governments face another $40 billion-plus shortfall for fiscal 2005, per the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, money could well remain tight and begrudged by an administration that, according to ACE's Harvey, â€œbelieves in redistribution of wealth, but up rather than down.â€?
â€œAnd that's one issue,â€? he says, â€œbut in a broader sense, we just don't have strategies in place that recognize the importance of investing in our young people. The wake-up call should've been the 2000 census, which gave a very, very clear indication that students emerging from high schools are increasingly people of color. We've moved from a postindustrial economy to a knowledge economy, and whether we get them the educational backgrounds and resources to achieve the potential of their capabilities in that context will have everything to do with whether we continue to be viable economically as a nation.â€?
On the current footing, however, we are seeing college access dwindling to only those whose families can afford it outright. For too many others, it is in danger of regressing to an American Dream, once again, deferred.