College opportunity: let's pay it forward

(01-22-2010)

Opinion by Dr. David Svaldi, president of Adams State College

Seventy eight million baby boomers are set to retire in the near future. As a member of this generation, I find myself in company with the most highly educated generation in American history. It is a generation that took advantage of relatively inexpensive post-secondary education subsidized by direct state support of public colleges and universities, as well as by federally subsidized student loans and benefits from the original GI Bill.

For many years a legitimate claim has been made the United States had the highest average of college educated citizens in the world. But as us old geezers have started to retire, various studies indicate that the U.S. is losing its lead to India, China, and other countries.

There is a new "bubble" of college-age students that could replace us retiring boomers. Their circumstances are similar to mine in the 1960s: most are not affluent, and they may be the first individuals in their family to attend college. However, these students do not look like me-lucky for them. The largest percentage of these potential students are Hispanic and live in the West and the Southwest U.S.

Unlike my generation, today's students find more limited opportunities. Relative to the 1960s, public higher education is very expensive. As demands on state budgets have grown -particularly since 1980 - the proportion of state budgets devoted to subsidizing public colleges and universities has fallen, causing tuition to increase even more. Federal requirements make it a chore and nearly a challenge for even a CPA to complete the Free Federal Application for Financial Aid Form (FASAFA). Abuses in the loan industry, as well as the bank meltdown of the most recent recession, make applying for and receiving a subsidized loan to attend college a complex process. And while the "New" GI Bill benefits are excellent, actually receiving those benefits is another question.

Contrary to common belief, the single most powerful predictor of who will graduate from college with any degree is the income level of the student-not just their academic preparation. A recent study referenced in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that only 10 percent of U.S. college students in the lowest income quartiles will complete a 4-year college degree in 4-6 years. In contrast, the completion rate for students in the highest income quartile is 76 percent.

Income disparities in the U.S have grown and become more stratified since I attended college in the 1960s. In fact, one summary of studies indicates the gap between the rich and the poor will widen further, if the current trend continues. Some citizens will have access to all our society can offer, while others are frozen into poverty and low-paying jobs. (Think of this as Aspen vs. the temporary housing communities near Eagle and Rifle).

Most students of history have a general understanding of the French Revolution and the violence that arose from poverty and class stratification. The greatest threat to our affluence and security as a nation is not from without our borders; it will be from within. No great civilization has ever survived such social stratification. We need to find ways, even with the challenges that every state is facing, to support access to and success in higher education. The future of our young people and our country depends on meeting this challenge.

I have had the honor of working with young people-I have full confidence that the coming generation can succeed (and will hopefully do a better job than us boomers), but we need to ensure they have a fair chance at the same opportunities we had.