Americans put great stock in the promise of a college education. Most adults see a degree as important for personal success, and they are right. Social and economic data confirm that individuals benefit from college. Communities gain, too. College graduates are more likely to stay employed, buy houses, marry, pay taxes, avoid welfare, commit fewer crimes, volunteer for socially useful causes, vote, be happier and healthier, and live longer.
Thus it comes as quite a surprise to learn that the current college attainment rate is about what it was in the 1970s. Today, 32 percent of young people earn a college degree, compared to 31 percent back in the early 1970s. As the chart shows, between 1965 and 1974, college attainment increased from 23 percent to 31 percent, continuing an upward trend that started in the 1920s. Between the high point in 1974 and the low point in 1984, college attainment slumped back to 27 percent before rebounding to 32 percent by 1994. Since then, higher education in the U.S. has settled into a steady state, at about 32 percent college attainment, one that is too low for the good of young people or the nation.
America's colleges and universities must expand and be affordable. Young people themselves want more education than they are getting. Barbara Schneider and the late David Stevenson called their 1999 book The Ambitious Generation because the young people they studied were so eager to succeed in college. Twice as many young people aspire to a college degree as achieve one, according to Schneider and Stevenson. Aspirations and achievements were better aligned in the 1960s and 1970s when states were supporting expansion of higher education to accommodate and encourage rising aspirations.
Historically, public universities have been the inexpensive avenue of upward mobility for the children of the non-affluent. But the era of state investment in affordable higher education is over. Cutbacks replaced expansion in the late 1970s. Each subsequent recession required another cost-cutting round as legislatures withdrew support. State universities adapted to less funding in ways that helped them maintain quality for those in attendance but that ended up leaving too many qualified and motivated students out.
california led the nation on the way up and on the way down. Going up, California built 13 new universities in the 11 years from 1954 to 1965. The Master Plan for Higher Education set high standards: college degrees for one-third of the state's young people and elite degrees from University of California campuses for the top one-eighth of each class. The state promised to pay the instructional and infrastructural costs. Tuition was free; students paid fees for room, board, and extracurricular services. Few states could match the scope and scale of California's systems, but nearly every state provided more public higher education in 1975 than in 1955.
California's Proposition 13, a 1978 statewide ballot initiative to roll back property taxes, sparked retrenchment. The state government had to step in to make up for lost local revenues, leading to a slowdown in state support for higher education. In 1979, a second proposition, known as the Gann Amendment, strictly limited spending. Thirty-seven other states, in some form or another, followed California's lead. Overall revenue and spending limits held college enrollment growth to the same pace as population growth.
Before the tax revolt, legislative Republicans had been the universities' champions. After Prop. 13 and Gann, most were committed to cutting state spending, even university spending. As ballot initiatives piled up, voters inadvertently crowded out higher-education spending with other spending mandates. Proposition 98 in 1988 gave K-12 education and community colleges budget guarantees that hurt state universities. Proposition 184 in 1994 mandated 25 years to life imprisonment for three-time offenders, sparking a prison boom. With total spending capped, California's zero-sum budget left higher education as one of the few categories open for discretionary cuts. The governor and legislature nearly always made them.
Although no other state enacted anything as binding as the limits of California's Proposition 13 and Gann Amendment, only a few rapidly growing states, such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona, continued to expand public higher education. Elsewhere, expansion was off the table.
State universities adapted to the new funding limits by increasing tuition, especially at the most prestigious "flagship" public universities. Less prestigious state universities typically reduced the amount spent on instruction. One consequence was a sharper distinction between the flagship public universities and the rest. Another was a shift in instructional costs to students and parents.
A system that once thrived on almost four state dollars to every parent's or student's dollar now asks families to match the state contribution dollar for dollar, or more. In some state systems, public funding now provides as little as 8 percent of costs. Consequently, public university tuition and fees have risen at exactly the same pace as soaring private tuition, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES data indicates that tuition rose at 2.5 times the overall rate of inflation since double-digit inflation ended in 1982?1983. Some state systems, such as Virginia and Michigan, made up for larger-than-average cuts by relying on out-of-state students who pay higher tuition, according to a study by Berkeley's Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
The flagship public universities have dramatically lower freshman admission rates than they used to. Berkeley is illustrative. In 2007 Berkeley accepted 23 percent of its applicants and denied 77 percent. Thirty years earlier, in 1977, the figures were the opposite; Berkeley admitted 67 percent and denied only 33 percent that year.
The University of Wisconsin, Madison, cut its acceptance rate from 71 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2008. The University of Michigan reduced its admission rate from 54 percent to 42 percent during this decade, and the University of Florida reduced admissions from 60 percent to 38 percent.
To find a recent acceptance rate like Berkeley's 67 percent in 1977, you have to slide substantially further down the academic prestige hierarchy. In 2008, universities accepting a similar percentage of applicants included Stephen F. Austin State University (in Texas), the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, David Letterman's alma mater of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and, in an odd kind of symmetry, California University of Pennsylvania.
Berkeley actually admits more freshmen than it used to, but it gets 49,000 applications a year now compared to 12,000 in 1984. Applications raced ahead of admissions mainly because more of California's young people aspired to college. (Some of this statistical shift reflects multiple applications. Lower acceptance rates prompt students to submit more applications.) In short, America's colleges and universities are too selective. Too many aspiring applicants end up with too few options.
Could community colleges fill the gap? More students take community college courses every year. But few community colleges receive the public funding they need to serve as an academic pipeline to a four-year degree. Among community college students who aspire to bachelor's degrees only one-in-seven succeeds, because legislators think of community colleges as places to grant terminal associate degrees, and ignore the fact that community college students need guidance and support services to make the transition to a university.
To be competitive in the high-tech global economy of the next 20 years, the United States must reverse the downward trend and increase admissions at four-year institutions. That will be very hard to do. Even if funding were not an issue, academic culture seldom questions the wisdom of being selective. However, Berkeley's excellence was unquestioned when it admitted 67 percent of applicants. In 2007, 23 percent of freshman applicants were admitted not out of a conviction that only the selected applicants can succeed but out of a practical concern that the campus space and facilities can accommodate only about 4,000 freshmen.
Facing limits in the 1960s, California built more campuses and hired more faculty. Today California is politically paralyzed. The situation is more hopeful elsewhere. Texas A&M has expanded to make a success of Texas' guarantee of admission to the top 10 percent of each high school's graduating class. The universities of South Florida and Central Florida have increased admission numbers rapidly in this decade. Miami-Dade College and Arizona State University made headlines in recent years by emphasizing access. Miami-Dade has the most students among public universities that grant four-year degrees, though most of Miami-Dade's students are not pursuing four-year degrees. ASU passed Ohio State University with the largest enrollment in four-year degree programs in 2004.
What if, by some miracle or practical intervention, state universities were to reverse themselves and become less selective? Is there evidence that the rejected applicants could succeed if some university gave them a chance? It turns out that far more students could flourish at universities and that the admission process is not very good at predicting who deserves a chance.
The evidence for this conclusion comes from three natural experiments and a sophisticated statistical analysis of three large data bases. We have to rely on natural experiments and statistical adjustments because there is no placebo that mimics a college education without providing one.
William Bowen and Derek Bok are former presidents of Prince-ton and Harvard. In the mid-1990s they evaluated affirmative-action programs from a sample of America's most selective private and public colleges and universities. From the universities they acquired the academic records of nearly all the students who entered in 1951, 1976, and 1989. They linked the college records to data on test scores and family characteristics. Finally, they interviewed the students themselves about their post-college experiences. These data revealed that students admitted under affirmative-action programs graduated and proceeded to earn advanced degrees at the same rate as a reference group of other students matched to the affirmative-action admits. They also had the same post-degree earnings as students in the reference group. The study was first reported in 1998 in Bowen and Bok's book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, and subsequently summarized and debated in the press.
In the second natural experiment, the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1970 went from having a highly selective admissions process to open enrollments almost overnight. Sociologists Paul Attewell and David E. Lavin tracked down a sample of women from the first three years of open enrollment. They compared the women admitted under the open admissions policy at CUNY with women nationwide who underwent a more selective admissions process. In Passing the Torch they report that the open-enrollment women did slightly better in the areas of graduating, continuing to advanced degrees, and earnings than did the comparison group who underwent selective admissions processes. In further comparisons with a national sample of comparable women, Attewell and Lavin showed that open enrollment substantially increased the probability of attending college as well as completing college.
The third natural experiment comes from France, but it is still relevant. Demonstrations and strikes in May 1968 disrupted many social institutions and forced the cancellation of qualification exams -- the French version of the SATs. Eventually watered-down exams were given in a hurry, and pass rates soared. The higher pass rates enabled a greater proportion of students to pursue more years of higher education than would have been possible under usual circumstances. Economists Eric Maurin and Sandra McNally report in the Journal of Labor Economics how they compared the students who benefited from the higher admissions rates in 1968 with students from the adjacent cohorts that were subject to the usual circumstances. They found that "for those on the margin of passing their examinations, additional years of higher education increased future wages and occupational levels." France's exam system in the late 1960s was very rigorous and selective, but lower-testing students apparently were capable of doing well in pursuing higher education.
The final piece of evidence is the most general. Sociologists Jennie E. Brand and Yu Xie examined three large cohorts of students -- two nationally representative cohorts and one of Wisconsin high school graduates. For each cohort they calculated the probability that representative students would have attended college, based on the kinds of things admissions officers know: high school grades, gender, race, and family characteristics. They found that the students who were least likely to get in and go to college benefited more from their degree than did the students who usually attend college.
Altogether, these three natural experiments and one statistical study yield 15 tests of college selection. In all 15 tests, the unlikely college students (affirmative-action, open-enrollment, and the 1968 French admits as well as the youth Brand and Xie identify as having a low statistical probability of attending) outperformed or equaled a matched set of students on an important criterion -- graduating, getting an advanced degree, or earning a high salary. This is very important. It means that if we could get out of the current political and fiscal corner, expanding college enrollments and college graduations would pay off at rates comparable to and probably exceeding the rates that pertain today. Far from wasting young peoples' time and universities' resources, expanding admissions would increase college attainment and American workers' productivity.
Improving individual lives is reason enough to expand college enrollments and college graduation rates. A line of research that goes back to a paper I published in 1988 shows a broader benefit as well. In over a dozen studies since, the same pattern emerges. For young people who graduate from college, family background has no effect on adult occupations and earnings. A college education is the great equalizer.