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Helping more students afford higher education

Private, unsubsidized debt cuts off access for too many.

Stephen M. Curtis

is president of

Community College of Philadelphia

The financial crisis engulfing us has exacerbated a decade-old issue: the inability of many students to get an affordable higher education.

A generation ago, the United States had the best-educated population in the world. Today, our nation ranks 10th among industrialized countries in the proportion of citizens aged 25 to 34 who have college degrees. And Mayor Nutter is one of many voices reminding us that Philadelphia ranks 92d out of the nation's largest 100 cities in college-degree attainment.

There is a clear link between affordability and access. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe that many qualified people can't get a higher education because of the cost, according to a 2007 report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. That was an all-time high in the group's polling.

In 1993, the average debt of a college graduate was $9,250. By 2007, it had risen to $22,000, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Even community colleges, our most affordable higher-education options, are not immune, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Full-time community-college students graduating with associate's degrees have an average of $7,020 in student debt. And the rising costs of higher education are increasingly being borne by students taking out private, unsubsidized loans.

Nonetheless, American college enrollment continues to grow - from 12.4 million 20 years ago to more than 17 million today. That would seem to defy arguments that escalating prices deter would-be students. But most of the growth in dependent undergraduates consists of students from relatively high-income families ($80,000 and up), according to a 2007 report by the Lumina Foundation for Education.

These students accounted for more than half of the enrollment increases among young adults from 1996 to 2004. As a result, a third of all dependent undergraduates are now from high-income families, while just 13 percent are from low-income families.

Research also shows that minority students are increasingly concentrated in public community colleges. But even community-college tuition is on the rise, because government financial support has been inconsistent.

The cost of tuition, room and board at four-year public colleges amounts to 55 percent of household income for the bottom tenth of American families, even with financial aid, according to a report released this month by the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education. That's up from 39 percent of those households' income in 2000.

The same report gave every state except California an "F" for its efforts to ease the cost of a college education. It was Pennsylvania's third failing grade in six years.

An educated workforce helps create a healthy economy, studies show, and the federal government estimates that at least 90 percent of the fastest-growing fields require some postsecondary education.

But the escalating cost of a college education is leaving thousands of Philadelphians unable to afford the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. This undereducated workforce contributes directly to the city's 25 percent poverty rate. The shortage of workers with college credentials also makes it difficult for the city to attract and retain businesses.

The mayor has challenged Philadelphians to halve the city's 45 percent high-school-dropout rate and double its number of college graduates. Community College of Philadelphia, which receives city funds, has responded. We froze tuition and fees for the current term, and we have several new programs to help students continue their education.

The Gateway to College program, for example, enables high-school dropouts ages 16 to 20 to simultaneously obtain both high-school and college credits. The college's new My Degree Now program enables Philadelphians who have at least 30 transferable college credits, and who have been out of school for at least two years, to get an associate's degree with no out-of-pocket costs.

Government cannot continue the trend toward relying exclusively on student debt without impeding lower-income students' access to education. Colleges must trim expenses, build scholarship support, and develop innovative programs. But it will take a new level of collaboration among businesses, legislators, nonprofits and colleges to keep America from falling woefully behind in educating its citizens.