States Score Low Marks in Higher Ed
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
Most states get failing grades when it comes to helping families afford college, but states are improving in getting students academically ready for college, according to a report released Sept. 7 by the independent and nonpartisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education .
The group's biennial report, " Measuring Up 2006 ," features descriptions of how each state performed in areas such as college access and completion, and urges states to improve in these areas to better compete on a global scale.
"Even though we still have a large number of the best universities in the world, our data shows that higher education as a whole in the country is underperforming and being out-performed by many other countries in the world," said Pat Callan, the center's president, during a conference call with reporters.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education is partially funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org .
This year's 33-page report was the first to make international comparisons, showing how states fare against about 30 other countries when it comes to the number of people with associate degrees or higher.
Minnesota, Massachusetts and New Hampshire ranked ahead of all countries in having the highest percent of older adults (ages 35-64) holding at least an associate's degree, with nearly 50 percent, and competed with Canada and Japan for the top spots for younger adults (ages 25-34) with those degrees.
Alaska and Nevada also ranked fairly high in the percentage of older adults with at least an associate's degree, but for their younger adults with those degrees, both states are in the middle of the pack behind countries like New Zealand and Denmark.
"I want (people) to pay attention as to how we're doing as compared to the world because it's the world we're competing against today," James Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina and the chair of the National Center's board of directors, said at a Washington, D.C., press conference. "We have said our higher education is the best in the world…Well, people are creeping up on us.”
The area where the states performed worst was college affordability. To gauge that, the study looked at how much it costs to attend college after financial aid is factored in, and the percent of family income needed to pay for college.
Utah and California - with a grade of C-minus - were the top-performing states, followed by Hawaii, Idaho, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington with "D" grades. The remaining states flunked.
College has become less affordable since the early 1990s, according to the report. Today, Ohio families need 42 percent of their income to pay for a four-year public college, the highest in the country. Behind Ohio are Vermont, where families spend 41 percent of their income to put their children through college, and Pennsylvania and Rhode Island at about 39 percent. The report recommends that tuition hikes be tied to a factor like family income.
Some bright spots were Washington, California and Maryland, which have substantially increased need-based financial aid, according to the report. In Washington, the percent of need-based financial aid, as compared to federal aid, jumped from 24 percent to 86 percent from 1992 to 2006.
The report found no improvement was made in increasing access to college, noting that the likelihood of a ninth-grader enrolling in college within four years was less than 40 percent.
Also alarming was the disparity between the number of white and nonwhite students going to college. The states with the biggest differences were Colorado (40 percent of white 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled, compared to 17 percent of nonwhites); New Jersey (47 percent to 27 percent); and Pennsylvania (39 percent to 21 percent).
There was an even larger discrepancy between the number of high-income and low-income people enrolling in college. In Virginia and Connecticut, 58 percent of high-income 18-to-24-year olds attend college, but only 14 percent of low-income Virginians were in school, while in Connecticut that figure was 16 percent.
States made some gains in the percentage of students receiving degrees and certificates, but Callan added that college completion was still an "Achilles heel" of higher education. Even in high-performing states like South Dakota and Wyoming, only about 65 percent of first-year community college students returned for a second year, compared to 44 percent for Oregon, the worst-performing state in this category.
Massachusetts and Delaware had the highest percentage of students who received a bachelor's degree in at least six years, at 67 percent, far above Alaska and Nevada, with the lowest rates at 21 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
The area that saw the most improvement was college preparation, where most of the states received passing grades. Although low high school graduation rates were still a problem, the report found students scoring higher on national math assessments, college entrance tests and Advanced Placement tests. The number of high school students in upper-level math and science classes also increased, according to the report.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said at the press conference this improvement was the result of the discussion about standards and expectations brought up by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires every student to be reading and doing math at grade level by 2014.
But she said the report still showed "there are some storm clouds" because of other failures in higher education.
"Ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs require a post-secondary degree," Spellings said. "Higher education has gone from being a nice-to-have to a must-have.