Obama’s glas is half vol

Nieuws | de redactie
5 augustus 2009 | Prof. Arnold Mitchem geeft een kritische analyse van het HO-beleid van president Obama, een vriend van hem uit Chicago. De focus op ‘betere SF’ acht Mitchem op zich prima, maar “the president’s reform measure, as it now stands, resembles nothing so much as a doctor’s prescription to treat a complex condition with a single medication. In isolating an important and necessary pre-condition — financial aid — but failing to consider other dimensions of this phenomenon, the treatment is doomed to failure.”

President Obama’s avowed goal is to provide an “education sothat every child can compete in the global economy,” and in sodoing to restore the United States’ leadership role by having thehighest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year2020. He’s recognized that one of the mechanisms necessary toachieve that is to transform Pell Grants into an entitlement.

The Pell Grant program is the sine qua non of equaleducational opportunity. It represents one of the most importantmechanisms developed in higher education to ensure low-incomestudents are afforded financial access to postsecondaryopportunities. By all accounts, Pell Grants historically havecontributed to allowing millions of low-income studentsunparalleled access to higher education in the last four decades,and yet they have been vulnerable to funding shortfalls and theirvalue has frequently lagged behind college cost increases.Therefore, proposing to make the Pell Grant an entitlement is asmart step by the Obama Administration. This constitutes amuch-needed, long-overdue reform.

However, unless the administration changes course, it is likely tosquander this terrific opportunity for the United States to boostboth its academic and economic competitiveness. The administrationrisks compromising this critical investment in human capital byfailing to dramatically enhance investment in college retention andcompletion.

So the president’s reform measure, as it now stands, resemblesnothing so much as a doctor’s prescription to treat a complexcondition – in this case, barriers to postsecondary access andattainment – with a single medication. In isolating an importantand necessary pre-condition – the provision of financial aid – butfailing to consider other dimensions of this phenomenon, thetreatment is doomed to failure.

Unless and until the administration addresses the full spectrum ofcauses, it will not achieve its goals. And until it takes aholistic approach to student aid, its enormous investment in PellGrants will not be fully leveraged.

Simply put, the Obama administration’s definition of student aid isfar too narrow. What is desperately needed instead is a morecomprehensive view of student aid that reflects the recognitionthat low-income and first-generation students face multiplebarriers – class, cultural, informational, academic, and social -to postsecondary education, and not just a lack of funds. Merelyproviding financial resources through mechanisms like the PellGrant alone will not solve the problem of getting first-generationand low-income students through college. Congress recognized thismore than a quarter of a century ago in the Education Amendments of1980 when it proclaimed the principle that the TRIO programs were”an integral part of the student assistance programs aimed atachieving equal educational opportunity.”

“Without the information, counseling, and academic servicesprovided by the TRIO programs,” the House Report went on to say,”disadvantaged students are often unable to take advantage of thefinancial assistance provided by the other Title IV programs, andmore importantly, such students do not develop their talents bygaining access to postsecondary educational opportunities andcompleting a course of study once they have embarked on it.”

By investing in financial aid but not providing increases for TRIOand GEAR UP, the Obama administration is failing to raise theaspirations of low-income students and to equip them with the toolsnecessary to persist in their studies and, ultimately, achievecollege degrees. Thus we have to conclude that in this budget, theAdministration is, perhaps unwittingly, undermining its own policygoals.

There is ample evidence that financial aid alone has never been andcan never be the “silver bullet” to guarantee educationalopportunity. And the public investment in Pell Grants has grown solarge that there is a real liability to taxpayers unless it can beproperly leveraged. In fact, just over the last eight years, PellGrants have seen a 214 percent increase in funding (from $8.8billion FY2001 to $18.8 billion in FY2009).

Looked at another way, in constant terms, funding for Pell Grantsin the last three decades has grown by 143 percent. Yet thedisparity in bachelor’s degree attainment rates between studentsfrom the top and bottom quartiles of family income has nearlydoubled since 1970, according to Tom Mortenson in “Family Incomeand Higher Education Opportunity, 1970-2006.”

Through a comparison of college completion rates of Pell recipientswho did and did not receive support services, we know that PellGrants alone do not suffice to retain low-income andfirst-generation students. Data from the U.S. Department ofEducation show that six years after beginning a postsecondaryprogram, students who have participated in TRIO Student SupportServices have a higher rate of earning a baccalaureate degree (30.9percent) than other low-income college students, regardless ofwhether they received (21 percent) or did not receive (8.9 percent)Pell Grants.

Yet the president’s budget continues the pattern of previous yearsof level funding. Funding for TRIO and GEAR UP programs thatprovide such vital supports to low-income and first-generationstudents has essentially been flat for the last seven years. Byvirtue of this stagnant funding as well as rising costs, TRIOprograms serve 25,000 fewer students now than in 2003.

Here’s what we know for certain: This year, an estimated 1.6million low-income students will begin their pursuit of apostsecondary degree. If previous trends continue, only 176,000 ofthese students will earn a baccalaureate within the next six years.And if the president’s budget proposal is enacted, about 20,000students already in college will lose support services, thusincreasing the likelihood that they will fail to earndegrees.

Is it possible that President Obama is ignoring his campaignpromise to support TRIO, GEAR UP, and the first-generation andlow-income students the programs serve across the country? Duringa May 2008 speech in Denver, then-candidateObama said the key to improving the lives of American families wasto “expand college outreach programs like GEAR UP and TRIO.” Ifthese “promises” are to become reality, President Obama must actdecisively to assume responsibility for students’ success now.America simply does not have time to “wait and see” while thefutures of hundreds of thousands of low-income students hang in thebalance. Their futures are our own.

Dr. Arnold Mitchem is de president van de Council for Opportunityin Education.

Lees zijn interview met ScienceGuide hier.Het artikel schreef hij in Inside Higher Ed.

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