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Maintaining access in a privatized public university

BY CHRISTOPHER MORPHEW - GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 25, 2010 7:30 AM

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In the Feb. 20 Iowa City Press-Citizen, James Gardner, the former president of Miami University in Ohio (a public university) is quoted as saying that unless some important changes are made, “We will see public universities gradually get worse and become a refuge of last resort for students who can’t afford to go anywhere else, worse-case-scenario, parallel to inner-city schools.”

With all due respect to Gardner, I would argue that his prediction is exactly the opposite of what is likely to happen at flagship publics such as the University of Iowa. In fact, the more likely danger at the UI and other public universities is that they morph into what education researcher Tom Mortenson describes as “gated communities,” serving disproportionate numbers of students from high-income families.

Many public universities are becoming increasingly elite, both in terms of admission and attendance. The University of Virginia, for example, admits only 1 in 3 applicants, according to petersons.com. At that university in 2005, fewer than 8 percent of undergraduates qualified for federal Pell Grants, which are need-based grants offered to students from lower-income families. For comparison, consider that nearly 30 percent of undergraduates enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities were Pell-eligible, according to the research group Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

The UI is fast becoming an elite university, too. In 2006, the university enrolled 16.2 percent of all undergraduates in the state of Iowa, but only 3.8 percent of the state’s Pell-eligible undergraduates.

Tuition at public universities such as the UI will almost certainly be going up in the near future, perhaps for many years. That is to be expected as the university copes with proportionately fewer state dollars while maintaining its high quality and national reputation. But, as the price of attendance at the university rises, its leaders have a question to answer: Do they want the university to attract the best and brightest, regardless of their ability to pay?

If the answer is no, little or no action is required. As tuition costs increases, attendance at the UI will become increasingly correlated with family income.

If, however, the answer is yes, then some strategic action is required. The good news is that there are examples of policies and programs that demonstrate that even if a university increases its sticker price, it does not necessarily have to become out-of-reach for students from low-income families.

Many public universities have met the challenge of ensuring access even as tuition prices have risen.

The University of North Carolina has established the Carolina Covenant, a program that provides a no-loan financial-aid award to students from families with incomes at 200 percent or less of federal poverty guidelines.

Research demonstrates that it’s not enough to provide financial aid to students from low-income families. Universities must establish relationships that inform and enable prospective students.

Again, there are models that might be replicated at the UI.

In 2005, for example, the three most selective public universities in Virginia entered into a formal contract with the state that simultaneously addresses the universities’ need for greater authority and the state’s interest in ensuring a more equitable higher-education system. The “management agreement” signed by the universities identifies specific targets for increased numbers of community-college transfers. The contract also commits the universities to work directly with low-income regions within the state to promote economic and student development. Finally, the universities have agreed to numeric goals related to the numbers of applicants and enrolled students from low-income families. In turn, the universities have been granted greater authority.

Fewer state dollars will invariably mean a higher sticker price at the UI. But, with some leadership and hard work, we can find ways of ensuring that the university continues its public mission and is a resource available to all qualified Iowans.

Christopher Morphew is professor of higher education and chairman of the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies at the UI.


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