College Degree Required: Understanding Access and Affordability in Higher Education

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama said that “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine.”

With education at the heart of the President’s plan for economic recovery, the Administration has issued a strong challenge to higher education: By 2020, 55% of Americans should hold at least an associate’s degree.

Achieving this goal would require a yearly increase of 8% in the nation’s degree attainment rate, a task directly at odds with the hard facts of increasing tuition costs, especially at state colleges and universities.

As reported in a January 24 New York Times article, several states are struggling to piece together budgets to fund public colleges and universities. Faced with those cutbacks, many public universities are dramatically raising tuition to piece together their own budgets.

Increased costs are, in turn, putting college students and their families under financial pressure, and Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Cost Project, said that soon there will be “students who are spilling out the bottom, priced out of expensive institutions.”

Penn GSE Professor Laura Perna’s research focuses on access to higher education, college affordability, and student success – basically, what gets students in the door, and what gets them out the door with a degree in hand. And she is particularly interested in “understanding the forces that limit educational attainment, particularly for students from traditionally underrepresented groups.”

Perna points to some telling statistics: although the percentage of Americans who earn degrees is increasing nationwide, students in high-income families are more likely to enroll in degree programs than students in low-income families. That gap could easily increase as state budgets lag and tuition for public universities increases.

“Across groups over time, we have an increase in college access,” Perna said. “But these gaps across groups are persistent.” Enrollment in degree programs also appears to vary widely across racial and ethnic groups.

To understand these enrollment patterns, Perna explores “the contexts in which students make decisions about applying to or enrolling in higher education institutions.” These contexts include the student’s “social capital” (that is, his social network), his high school and neighborhood culture, the perceived accessibility of college (including cost and potential student loan debt), and national and local education policy.

Some of the most important messages students receive about college, Perna maintains, come from family and community members. If a student’s community expects her to go to college, the chances that she will successfully earn her degree are much higher. Cost – both the immediate issue of tuition and the prospect of student loan debt – also plays an important role in the decision-making process.

Despite persistent access and attainment gaps and tuition hikes that make college even more challenging for lower-income students, Perna is pressing higher education institutions to apply some of what she and her colleagues have learned to increase attainment.

The key, according to Perna, is threefold: decrease the number of students who start degree programs but fail to graduate, increase access for non-traditional students (like adults), and decrease gaps in access among socioeconomic groups.

Because cost is a major barrier to attainment, Perna recommends that states should focus on need-based aid, while institutions of higher education should work to contain tuition costs and, at the same time, provide better and clearer information about loans.

On the academic side, everyone needs to work on improving student success. High schools need to get better at college preparation, particularly for students in underserved communities. Once those students get to campus, colleges must provide the kind of support they’ll need to complete their degree programs.

“Increasing college access to non-traditional and underserved students will ensure that we have workers who have the educational requirements to do the jobs that we’re going to have in the coming years,” Perna says. “And addressing barriers and increasing enrollment among non-traditional students will create a more diverse and vibrant educational experience as well as better prepare future generations of workers.”

GSE Features Archive