Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Double Standard on Financial Aid?

An open letter to administrators at 

the University of Minnesota

A former employee of the Academic Affairs and Provost office writes to Robert McMaster and Tom Sullivan.

By Andy Howe - University lecturer

Although I am a past employee of your office, I am writing today as a concerned alumnus of the University of Minnesota and taxpayer in the state. I received my Ph.D. in higher education from the University in 2009, so I have a keen interest in the integrity of the land grant mission of the University. As a taxpayer, I want to make sure that my contribution to the University is aligned with this mission and provides broad access to undergraduate education.
Lately, policies on which you have led give me concern about access to undergraduate education and integrity of the land grant mission. Let me first get a few things out of the way. I am fully aware of the competition in higher education, federal and state cuts, the research focus of the University, middle-class affordability and the needs of multiple stakeholders.
These concerns are substantial and need to be addressed.
The University is also a land grant university, so intersections of choice, access, affordability and student success are equally if not more important to consider.
Although many universities have made access and affordability a priority, low-income students are being priced out of public, four-year institutions. You and others have mentioned that the University is consistent with other public universities with tuition, fees and institutional financial aid. But if there is a national issue with institutional policy, comparing the University with others who are also pricing out low-income students does nothing but present a half-truth.
Because of recruiting strategies, decreased need-based aid, increased merit-aid, caps on enrollment, increased tuition and fees, and a host of other policy decisions on which you have led, what has been the outcome? Recently, Washington Monthly ranked universities on social mobility (enrolling and graduating students on Pell Grants). The University was ranked one of the lowest in the Big Ten and in all flagship universities. The University also has one of the highest achievement gaps in the Big Ten and in all flagship universities.
What then is the long-term strategy for choice, access, affordability and for low-income student success at the University? I am an advocate for balanced — but not open — admission, beneficial financial aid policies, and transparency and accountability to these policies at public institutions.
With that said, you both have mentioned and written that institutional financial aid has grown substantially over the past several years, yet I can find no clear evidence that indicates that the percentage of out-of-pocket expenses (net price as a percentage of income) from those families making $30,000 or less has decreased substantially. How does the growth of merit-based institutional aid compare to the growth of need-based institutional aid from 2008 until present? Over the same time period, what is the average net price as percentage of annual income for students from families at $30,000, $70,000 and $110,000?
You both take pride in the increase of ACT scores and high school rank of entering first-year students and hope to continue these increases. As Vice Provost Robert McMaster stated in a recent Minnesota Daily article, “Aside from Carleton College and Macalester College, we [the University] probably are the most difficult to get into in the state of Minnesota.” Taking pride in limiting access at a land grant university is not one of the founding principles of the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land grant universities. President Eric Kaler has said that one of the things he had learned in his 100 days of listening was that many people feel the University is “aloof and arrogant.” Policies and statements like McMaster’s do nothing to change the public perception.
McMaster also stated in the most recent Board of Regents meeting that he and others “pressure colleges when we see that they are not performing to our expectations.” When it comes to informing the public and being accountable to the land grant mission, it appears you are not holding yourselves to the same standard.

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