Higher education is not fundamental human right as some may believe. Pursuing an education after high school is difficult on many levels, the most disturbing being the economic impact higher education has on the individual and their long-term future. Learning how social, political, and economic factors impact an individual's ability to access and succeed in furthering their education will provide useful data that can be applied in the course of devising a plan to reduce these negative factors and increase student ratios in the higher education arena.
Drawing from a variety of information sources, academic forums, and student surveys, the research will supports the contention that all people deserve access to higher education, while providing data that supports possible actions that can be taken. Understanding the economic factors that inhibit academic process is the first step toward making plans for change. The information reviewed within this paper debunks the hype associated with misleading advertising campaigns, such as the "Obama Helps Moms Go Back To School" ads that are rampant on the Internet. These ads give the impression that returning to school will not cost anything. In some cases this may be true but for students that seek advanced degrees (e.g. Masters, PhD), student loans will be part of the process and the financial implications last long after graduation.
"There are considerable demographic disparities in college enrollment and completion rates along the lines of race, socioeconomic status, gender and other important categories" (Kundu, 2005, p. 3). The stressors linked to the cost of higher education are real, but the facts linking a college degree with a better income in the future are also real. According to the U.S. Census Bureau statistics for 2007, persons age 25 or older with at least a Bachelor's degree earn an average 75% more than persons with only a high school diploma (Crissey, 2009). Studies conducted the same year reveal that among the population age 25 and over (197,892,369), 84.5% are high school graduates, 54.4% report having some college or more, 27.5% obtained a Bachelor's degree or more, and 10.1% obtained an advanced degree (2009). Women are more likely to finish high school and obtain some college, while men are more likely to obtain a Bachelor's or advanced degree (2009). Among the surveyed population age 25 and older, in 2007, 89.4% of non-Hispanic whites obtained a high school diploma compared to 80.1% of African Americans, 85.8 % of Asians, and 60.6% of Hispanics (2009). Asians are more likely to obtain some college (68.0%) and obtain a Bachelor's or advanced degree (49.5%, 19.6%) (2009).
Nationwide levels indicate that the "percentage of the population with at least a high school diploma was highest in the Midwest and lowest in the South" and the percentage obtaining a Bachelor's degree was largest in the Northeast and the smallest was in the South (2009).
Social, Economic, and Political Constraints
"Higher education is crucial for the improvement of the social, economic, and political welfare of all Americans" (Kundu, 2005, p. 2). Of all students enrolling in higher education studies, only half graduate with postsecondary degrees within six years (Kundu, 2005). The percentage is significantly lower among students from low-income and minority populations (2005). The Wall Street Journal reports that fewer low-income students are attending college (2010). Despite access to federal funding, many students fear the costs of student loans after graduation may be too high, even if their earnings are increased by obtaining a college degree. Other factors restricting higher education is the social influence many students face both at home and with peers.
Low-income students have limited resources available to further their education past high school, while many students living in low-income communities face difficulties in finishing high school. The public implications of students who do not have access to higher education include increased crime rates, reduced income in individual communities, poor quality of life, social inequality, and inability to adapt to contemporary changes linked to technology (Questions, nd). Other social factors that impact the private sector include poor health conditions, lower life expectancy rates, low quality of life for offspring, poor financial decision-making skills, low social status, and lack of imaginative and recreational abilities (Questions, nd).
The constraints placed on low-income families conflict with the economic benefit higher education has for the national economy. Apart from federal, state and institutional aid, low-income families rarely are in a financial position to draw from savings or borrow against assets, and are unlikely to have enough to pay for college out of current income (Choy & Bobbitt, 2000). Families with higher incomes report spending an average 32% of their income to cover the costs of tuition, room, and board at an average-priced public college or university. The costs are increased at the private college or university level. As a result, "students from low-income families will normally need substantial financial assistance to be able to attend college" (2000, p. 1). When student enrollment falls, the impact reaches the national economy in both public and private sectors. The impact lowers tax revenues, reduced productivity, reduces consumption, decreases workforce flexibility, increases reliance on government support, lowers salaries and benefits, increases unemployment, lowers savings levels, promotes poor working conditions, and limits personal and professional mobility (Questions, nd).
The financial implications passed on to the student vary according to the type of aid and the family and/or student contribution, if any. Nevertheless, the costs of accessing higher education are rising. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are typically two types of averages: the level of support provided to low-income students who actually receive a given type of aid, and the addition of all low-income students computed to "compare the relative contributions of the different types of aid and other types of support toward the price of attendance" (Choy & Bobbitt, 2000, p. 22). The results of the averages reveal that 86% of all low-income students attending college full time, full year, received some type of financial aid (p. 22); and 85-94% attending public 4-year institutions received financial aid according to dependency status. Among low-income students in private, not-for-profit institutions, 88-94% received some form of financial aid, as well as 78-89% of low-income students attending pubic, 2-year institutions (Choy & Bobbitt, 2000).
Politics take on many roles in higher education, including role that are linked to access to funding sources. The specific role and the quality of political influences vary by state. State support of higher education has experienced a significant decline "relative to state spending" (Tandberg, 2010, p. 416). State budgets have shuffled with funding placed in other areas such as Medicaid and similar public programs (Brownstein, 2010; Tandberg, 2010). In Virginia, 82% of Medicaid spending is for seniors in hospital beds and more than 60% of the budget goes to Social Security (Brownstein, 2010). According to Tandberg (2010), while "traditional economic and demographic factors" are greatly responsible for determining the levels of support at the state level, political influences also impact state-level interest groups (p. 416). Studies reveal politics as a primary influence on state fiscal policy, particularly with regard to higher education.
Other factors hindering student access to higher education is the fact that vital funds are being funneled to other programs (e.g. auto industry bailout) instead of putting money in programs that are part of America's future, such as education, research and development, and infrastructure (Brownstein, 2010).
Education as an industry has become politicized. The student is a commodity that generates revenue for the profit-making institutions of learning. Low-income students may qualify for federal financial aid, but the amount and lengths are limited making it hard to continue college after the first or second year. Furthermore, the costs of attending college extend beyond the cost of tuition and books to include traditional living expenses while in school. As if that were not enough, the number of single parents has increased making it hard to go to college and pay for child care, in addition to other expenses (e.g. shelter, auto, groceries). However, the supply and demand of higher education does not rank high on political agendas -unless, of course, the outcome will yield benefits for the political official or group. And it is these groups that have the greatest influence on changes within state budgets.
Measuring state policy as expenditure effort, Morgan, et al. (2005) conducted a time-series study using data from 1986 to 1995, revealing that enrollment (supply and demand) was the "strongest predictor of state spending effort" (p. 359). Efforts (commitment to higher education) were reported as being more "sensitive to variations in the number of employees (per student)" (p. 359). While the final results reveal that the major factors impacting education funding include employee costs and state per capita income as a negative effect on the dependent variable, the collective data reveals that "poor states exert greater financial effort in support of their colleges and universities than do more affluent states" (p. 370).
Current Resources and Risks
Historically, minorities and low-income students do not have access to the resources that others students do. However, the ongoing recession has led many Americans to return to school. In fact, some sources claim that Americans are heading "back to college in record numbers" (Low-income, 2010, para. 1; Berg, 2010). The current Administration claims it is determined to "improve the country's record on degree attainment, [and] higher education" (Low-income, 2010, para. 1). Despite these claims, however, the education industry is "falling short" and the greatest impact is felt among students who "should stand to gain the most from it" (para. 1).
The overwhelming number of online advertisements claiming "Obama Helps Moms Go Back To School" have blurred the lines between access to higher education and the long-term implications. For one, the US government has taken over the financial industry in education. Federally funded student loans are moving progressively from private institutions to the federal government's Direct Loan program. While the government may be depositing funds from a Stafford Loan in a student's account, the economic impact of the funding process and origination changes have led lending institutions to suffer while the student is incurring high student loans that they will be paying on decades after graduation -if they make it that far.
Pre-college outreach programs are a starting point for students who doubt their financial ability to access higher education. By understanding the true costs of attending college, students and parents will be prepared for the pre-planning process. A current funding resource most utilized is the Department of Education, which originates, disperses, and oversees the Stafford Loan (subsidized and unsubsidized), Stafford Plus (subsidized and unsubsidized), and the Pell Grant. Individual states most often offer some type of financial aid in the form of grants but the process is tedious and the awards are limited. Furthermore, most grants are awarded only to students who do not receive the full Pell grant, meaning low-income students may not have enough funding to pay for more than one to two years of school.
Students and parents should become knowledgeable on the full impact of higher education. However, education reform must become a priority among individual states in addition to efforts by the federal government. Policy change must be a focus of social, economic, and political sectors before real access and success in higher education will be recognized. There must be a consistent push from the public sector through individual efforts, education advocacy groups, and educators for change.
Grossman (2010) recommends using the social movement theory to analyze policy change created by site-based educators. In New York State, a group of teachers and administrators "used protest to protect a waiver, which exempted students in their schools from having to pass statewide graduation exams" (p. 655). As the group remained consistent in its efforts, they were able to "mobilize resources and to strategically frame their struggle in a manner that resonated with policymakers" which "allowed the educator activists to capitalize on emerging controversies surrounding the state's assessment system and create policy change" (p. 655). Certainly this approach will not work for all persons or groups, but change will not come unless Americans speak up -and the voices speaking must include those involved in the education industry, from the student and parent to the educator and institution.
Higher education is not fundamental human right as some may believe. Pursuing an education after high school is difficult on many levels, the most disturbing being the economic impact higher education has on the individual and their long-term future.In fact, obtaining a college degree is so expensive in terms of tuition, books, and living expenses that many students never continue past the first year, and among those who do, a 2-year degree is more than they can afford to pay back. The social, political, and economic factors that impact an individual's ability to access and succeed in furthering their education can be used to push for education reform. Consistent efforts by individuals (students and parents) and those within the education industry is an important step toward improvement and an affordable education.
Berg, G. A. (2010). Low-income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality: Higher Education in America. United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing.
Brownstein, R. (2010, June). Demography Is Destiny. National Journal, n.p. Retrieved July 25, 2010, from Social Science Module. (Document ID: 2067169191).
Choy, S. & Bobbitt, L. (2000, Mar). Low-Income Students: Who They Are and How They Pay for Their Education, NCES 2000-169. U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics: Washington DC.
Crissey, S. R. (2009, Jan). Educational Attainment in the United States: 2007. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved July 24, 2010 from census.gov/prod/2009pubs/p20-560.pdf.
Grossman, F. (2010). Dissent From Within: How Educational Insiders Use Protest to Create Policy Change. Educational Policy, 24(4), 655.
Kundu, R. (2006). The Right to Education: Some Theoretical Issues. Contemporary Issues and Ideas in Social Sciences, 1(1).
Morgan, D.; Kickham, K.; & LaPlant, J. T. (2005, July 6). State Support for Higher Education: A Political Economy Approach. Policy Studies Journal, 29(3), 359-371.
Questions That Matter: Setting the Research Agenda on Access and Success in Postsecondary Education (nd). Social Science Research Council.
Tandberg, D. (2010). Politics, Interest Groups and State Funding of Public Higher Education. Research in Higher Education, 51(5), 416-450.