With the creation of Pell Grants for lower-income students in 1965, Washington initially focused on expanding access. Later, a proliferation of tax credits and loan programs emphasized college affordability for families through the upper middle class. Obama has expanded Washington’s commitment on both fronts, with big Pell Grant and tax-credit increases and student-loan reform. But, more than his predecessors, he is also widening Washington’s focus to encompass completion and cost. “Taxpayers can’t keep on subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education,” the president insisted in his State of the Union address.
In higher education, as in health care, America boasts many of the world’s best institutions but produces disappointing results overall. Access is improving: Since 1972, the share of low-income high school graduates who start college immediately has about doubled, to more than half, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet nearly half of students who enroll in a postsecondary institution don’t complete a degree within six years. For African-Americans and Hispanics, the number is about three-fifths. Despite Washington’s huge investment in access, since 1970 the gap in college completion rates between students from the bottom and top fifths of the income ladder has doubled. Those from the top fifth are now seven times more likely to graduate than those from the bottom.
Debt compounds the problem. Stagnant family incomes and rising tuition expenses—driven by both growing costs and shrinking state support for public colleges—have forced students to borrow twice as much annually as a decade ago. Student debt has soared past $1 trillion (outpacing credit-card debt) and, as the Education Trust notes, low-income students are more likely to borrow, and less likely to finish, than higher-income classmates.