Even as the nation launches sweeping reforms to get kids ready for college, new trends signal that hundreds of thousands who make the grade won't be able to afford to go.
This trend is hitting middle-income families, as well as the poorest first-generation immigrants. It's not inevitable. But, for now, it's only getting worse.
Here's the pattern: Rising college tuition, which has outpaced inflation since the 1980s. Less need-based student aid to pay it. And record levels of personal debt at the end of it. For many families, a college education is a bridge too far.
Nearly half of all qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates couldn't attend a four-year college this year. By 2010, that will add up to 4.4 million students, according to a report released Wednesday by a Congress-appointed commission on financial aid in America.
Several studies in recent years have raised alarms about how inaccessible college is becoming, but none as emphatically as this one, which for the first time looks both at financial data and information about student academic preparedness.
For a nation that in 1965 committed to the promise that no student should be turned away from higher education because they can't pay for it, it's a sobering conclusion.
Moreover, it comes at a time when most states face budget deficits they are resolving in part by further cutbacks in higher education. This was the response of state legislatures to the most recent recessions in the early 1980s and 1990s. But today's budget decreases and double-digit tuition increases at some state colleges and universities in recent months are making access an even more remote prospect for many students.
"The trend is to cut budgets for higher education and increase tuition. We're looking at another famine in higher education," says Marga Torrence, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
Midyear budget cuts in Wisconsin even prompted a freeze of admissions at state universities, after which the legislature proposed cutting another $44 million in higher education funding.
The new report, released by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, finds that the students being shut out of higher education aren't just kids in lower-income brackets. They are also students who have done the right things to get ready for college: They have taken college preparatory courses, graduated near the top half of their classes, maintained an acceptable grade-point average and SAT scores. Still, they can't get over the financial obstacles.
"This is very important, because we've just put the nation on a path of ensuring that more children graduate from high school, and more graduate prepared to go to college. That's what elementary and secondary school reform has been about for more than a decade. What happens if it works?" says Brian Fitzgerald, the advisory panel's staff director.
Beginning with the G.I. Bill after World War II, the federal government has expanded access to higher education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 set as a goal that no high school senior would be turned away from college "because his family is poor." In 1972, Congress expanded access to college through education opportunity or Pell grants.
But sometime in the 1980s and without much public debate the emphasis began shifting from grants to loans, and from financial need to academic merit as the basis for receiving them. In states such as Georgia, need disappeared altogether from state funding formulas.
With high-paying manufacturing jobs disappearing, access to a college education became an even more important key to employability and advancement.
"The returns on a four-year college degree are now very significant.... Yet only about half [the low-income high-school graduates] who are qualified actually go," says Mr. Fitzgerald, who directed the study.
For the past 10 years, the US Department of Education has encouraged programs to get such students ready for college. New mentoring programs aimed to build motivation to go to college in early grades. But even as academic barriers came down, financial barriers were rising, especially for poor families.
"Only the wealthiest families have seen their income keep pace with increases in tuition," concludes another study, "Losing Ground," released in May by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
In response, national groups such as the College Board are beginning to push for refocusing aid on the students who most need it.
"There's general agreement that access is a huge issue, and [the problem is] growing," says Michele Booth Cole, executive director of government relations for the College Board.
The debate will spread to Capitol Hill in the next Congress, when reauthorization of The Higher Education Act comes up.