This summer, the Pew Charitable Trusts published a report that got my attention. The report, Federal and State Funding of Higher Education: A Changing Landscape, broke down the numbers and found that as state funding continues to dwindle, federal support has increased. This is a crucial shift in the financing model for public education, with tremendous implications for the Colin Powell School, its students, and the future of public education.
While state contributions typically show up as support for specific institutions, federal dollars generally arrive as grants, loans, and tax relief to individual students. Historically, state aid to institutions accounted for the lion’s share of public funding to colleges like The City College of New York. But in recent years, shifts in funding profiles made state and federal contributions to education more equal. Hence, even as we bemoan the drop in state support for our campus—in the past five years, state funds fell from 48 percent of our operating budget to just about 30 percent as of this year— the hidden story has been that federal dollars have been rising at just about the same rate. On our books, they show up as tuition revenue rather than public support—but the amount of public monies devoted to higher education have remained more stable than an exclusive focus on state contributions suggest.
Understanding this new funding context means understanding that if we lose students—if we fail to help them navigate their way through the complex of admissions, registration, and financial aid—we are losing public tax support as it is currently and increasingly being allocated.
This shift in financing is an unwelcome one, but trend lines over the past 25 years are unambiguous: states are retreating from their support of public universities. We have always been concerned with student retention, because we’ve always been concerned about our students’ success. Going forward, we have also have financial reasons why we must address student retention, which should begin by clearly understanding the concerns of a typical Colin Powell School student.
Our students are likely to come from an underrepresented social or ethnic group. Many of our students belong to families living below the poverty line. Surveys have shown us that 80 percent of CCNY student respondents were born in a country outside of the United States (while less than 20 percent are here on student visas). Together, those figures suggest that huge sections of our student population are seeking to make a home for themselves in the United States. But it also suggests that many may be inexperienced and ill-equipped to navigate the administrative hurdles that one must clear to get state and federal grants, loans, and tax credit. Our student may be the first in her family to attend college—and perhaps, therefore, also the first to contemplate filling out a financial aid eligibility form. She probably works a substantial number of hours each week. She may also bear the responsibility of steering immigrant parents through governmental systems and societal norms. She may not have health insurance. She may not be documented. She may have come from a deeply distressed public school.
So our students may have tremendous potential, but there’s a good chance that they come to college deeply unsure of this new environment. Yet the shifts in public financing to higher education make it more important than ever before that they figure things out quickly. As tuition increasingly becomes the way that public colleges secure their budgets, students become increasingly burdened in their role as conduits for that support. The hypothetical formula makes initial sense: Colleges can stabilize their budget by charging higher tuition to students who are eligible for more financial aid. But those assumptions shift responsibility form the college’s relationship with the state to the student’s relationship with the federal education bureaucracy.
And here lies one of the dirty little secrets of public education, particularly in places committed to supporting the aspirations of underserved men and women: While we bemoan the corrosive impact of failing high schools, stressed neighborhoods, poverty, and social instability on educational outcomes, an unimaginably large number of students leave college, or limp to the finish line because they cannot figure out how to navigate the numerous bureaucracies they encounter. Before we lose the students with poor math skills, or an inability to write, we lose countless others who fail to solve some puzzle with its roots in the administrative bureaucracy.
Take, for example, a scenario that is as common as it is frustrating. Over the last few years, restrictions on financial aid have grown increasingly complicated, and computer audits of student courses more unforgivingly sift courses that are deemed necessary from those that do not. Students navigating major and general education requirements need to be more focused on taking required courses, or they risk losing financial aid—typically in the year or month before they graduate. In consequence, some never do.
And then there is the issue of simply having enough qualified people to give the face-time and support that students need. As institutional funding for colleges falls, the easiest and earliest cuts often take place in these service offices, leaving them staffed with fewer—and less experienced— professionals. This leaves us less able to respond to this new context, where institutional solvency is dependent on student retention. Registration, admission, bursar, and financial aid offices need to be regarded as the frontlines in our effort to retain students. Where these offices have eroded, we must shore them up.
All of these factors combine into a complex of new barriers to student educational success, producing a deeply altered tone surrounding public education. Our public universities are, more than ever, cash-strapped and struggling. But they are also, as never before, asking students (rather than legislators, educators, and administrators) to be the problem-solvers, bringing revenue onto campus and helping balance the books. That reverses generations of good education policy and an established sense of who should be looking after whom.