Vouchers for Higher Education: Economic Tracking?

Note to Editors: A photo of Colorado State University President Albert Yates is available to accompany the following editorial piece. For an electronic photo, please call June Greist at (970) 491-1194.

By Albert C. Yates
President, Colorado State University
Chancellor, Colorado State University System

Just as the social welfare system of prior decades isolated and limited so many of the disadvantaged among us – destroying esteem, hope and ambition — we in Colorado must ask whether we are moving down the same path with the current version of a voucher system proposed for higher education.

By many accounts, President George W. Bush is creating an impressive legacy in the critical area of education. On introducing his "Leave No Child Behind" initiative, he noted the debilitating effects of constrained aspirations – "the soft bigotry of low expectations." And like so many, I’ve been heartened by the President’s commitment and insight. This "soft bigotry" is typically unintentional and camouflaged by well-meaning efforts. It crosses racial and cultural bounds, and has a single common denominator: The people most likely to see doors closed upon their dreams are those who are poor.

Perhaps that’s why I’m puzzled by one aspect of the current voucher proposal for Colorado higher education. Those involved in developing the voucher proposal are clearly committed to providing greater access to higher education for all people. But in the proposed model, greater access appears limited to only a portion of what is available — inadvertently serving, once again, to restrain the opportunities of the less fortunate among us.

A voucher system with an appropriate structure, and implemented with the express desire to buoy higher education, holds promise for Colorado. Vouchers could serve as one vehicle for achieving several critical objectives: enhance access and participation rates for people across our state, particularly for low-income students; allow higher-education governing boards the flexibility to raise cash funds and relieve some of the unintended consequences of the TABOR Amendment; and strengthen the quality of our academic programs by generating reasonable competition through the pressures of market forces. Colorado will be a pioneer in this effort – and could occupy an enviable position of leadership in determining the national landscape of higher education. All of these factors make a voucher system worth pursuing but also demand we get it right.

The system currently proposed by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel will greatly reduce the cost of attending a community college in Colorado, in the expectation that low-income students then will choose to begin their college careers at community colleges. According to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, an 11% tuition cut would bring our state’s community colleges directly in line with the cost of their national peers; other studies suggest community college tuitions already are at or below national peer levels. However, the current voucher model proposes to cut community college tuition by 25% and increase four-year college tuition by 5% to underwrite the expense of the reduction.

If the overall objective of a voucher system is to open greater access to opportunity at all levels of society we have to ask whether "tracking" low-income students into community colleges is an effective way to meet that objective. Does "access," without a corresponding commitment to success, have any meaning at all? For many students, regardless of income, community colleges are the best "point of entry" into higher education, and these colleges provide critical access to many people across our state with a broad range of life experiences and academic and vocational goals. But it is not the appropriate entry point for everyone, and studies have shown that those who wish to earn a four-year degree are more likely to achieve success if they start at a four-year institution.

A 2002 report by the American Council on Education tracked the academic success of 35,000 undergraduate students across the country who entered some form of higher education in 1995. The study found that, no matter what a student’s income level, four factors were key to academic success: starting at a four-year institution, attending full-time, living on campus and working part-time. Another study on national levels of access and persistence was more blunt in its findings, reporting that starting at a community college is one of the primary "risk factors that make it more difficult for students to complete college." This is not a reflection on the quality of the colleges themselves but on the simple fact that community college students must change schools to complete a four-year degree.

So why then, as a state, would we consider imposing a system that encourages all low-income students into community colleges for their first two years of college education? This approach seems to create a system of economic tracking that does not honor the character and values of our state and its system of higher education.

What is a more appropriate course? Ideally, the system we devise should inspire hope, reward effort and achievement, and be limitless in its potential for individual success. I believe several factors are important to any serious effort to enhance access, participation and success in higher education:

  • Access programs must be strongly coupled with efforts to promote success. Campus climate and special student retention and graduation programs are key.
  • The quality of the educational experience creates demand, is the basis for successful careers and must be the major attraction for higher education. Defining the institutional product of colleges and universities as "learning" creates a relationship between students and faculty that ensures service to students is always the first priority.
  • On-campus and community-based pre-collegiate programs offer significant returns in participation and success rates. Creative partnerships between higher education and K-12 provide some of the best opportunities.
  • Direct student and family costs of education should be better aligned with ability to pay. Such an alignment can be effected by challenging colleges and universities to mesh tuition and financial aid policies in ways that do not present enrollment barriers to deserving students.
  • We can learn from the experiences of private institutions. For example, investment in need-based financial aid is a highly successful method of improving participation, even in an environment of high tuition rates. As well, the experiences of public institutions with Pell Grants and the Governor’s Opportunity Scholarships offer important clues for accommodating the needs of low-income students.

My great hope as an educator and citizen is that we will not make formal a policy of low expectations for even one of our students.