October 5, 2006

Commentary (As published) - Newsday.

By Amy Gutmann

To end or not to end early admissions: That is the question that colleges and universities are debating once again. The passion is great, but the stakes are small and the debate is a distraction from a far more important matter: the urgent need of all but a handful of colleges and universities to improve financial aid for students from low-income and middle-income families.

At the University of Pennsylvania and many other colleges and universities, early admissions, which allow for early notification of highly qualified students who apply early to their first choice of schools, have not impeded access for economically disadvantaged and minority students. Nor would abolishing the practice achieve any significant social good. Because of our outreach activities and improved financial aid policies, many more students of color and students from low-income families are applying to Penn for both early and regular decision. Once again this year we enrolled a record number (and proportion) of minority students.

But our nation will accomplish nothing significant in improving access for students from low- and middle-income families unless we focus our attention on strengthening our need-based financial aid programs and our outreach to students who attend high schools where there is limited information about the availability of need-based financial aid.

Financial aid based on need is the great equalizer of opportunity in higher education. Nothing promotes equity and socioeconomic diversity more effectively. Even if tuition rates were frozen, a college education would simply be out of reach for low-income and most middle-income families were it not for need-based financial aid.

Over the past two decades, many colleges and universities, as well as states, have moved in precisely the wrong direction: They have increasingly relied on merit-based aid (scholarships based on scholastic ability) and athletic scholarships, both of which disproportionately favor students from higher-income families, rather than need-based aid. Directing a larger share of limited financial resources toward grants and tuition relief for wealthier families has widened the enrollment gap between high-income and lower-income students.

Recently a relatively tiny number of colleges and universities (Penn included) have dramatically improved financial aid — based on need — for students from low-income families. Last year we substituted grants for loans for students from economically disadvantaged families earning less than $50,000 a year. Now we are directing even more financial assistance to make Penn affordable to every student we admit.

The road to greater access must be paved with more than good intentions. Making college truly accessible to middle-income as well as low-income students is a daunting financial challenge. Over the past five years, Penn has increased need-based grant aid at more than double the rate of our tuition increases, thereby maintaining affordability for students receiving financial assistance.

For colleges and universities to do our part in making high-quality higher education affordable - and therefore accessible - to talented, hardworking students from all backgrounds, fund raising for need-based financial aid must take priority. Our donors understand that excellence and socioeconomic diversity go hand in hand, and are generously supporting need-based financial aid as Penn's sacred trust to expand educational opportunity to qualified students who otherwise could not afford to come here.

The stakes are even higher than is conveyed by the ideal of equal educational opportunity. American democracy can flourish and our economy can remain competitive on a global stage only if we offer the highest-quality education to the most talented children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

For the sake of our nation's future, federal and state governments need to do their part in improving elementary and secondary education and in joining with us to make college a realistic aspiration for all. To make college more accessible to low-income students, the federal government should increase the size of individual federal Pell grants, which have grown by only $50 since 2002 to $4050.

At the same time, we must not forget the middle class. After World War II, Congress passed the GI Bill to expand access to higher education for millions of returning veterans. As a matter of justice, Congress should consider passing the 21st century equivalent of a G.I. Bill to put a college education within reach of more middle-income families.

Both the ideal of equal educational opportunity and the reality of our country's future standing in the world demand that academia not be distracted by internecine debates in which relatively little will be gained or lost, regardless of who is right, and instead focus our efforts on providing a quality education and increasing financial aid based on need for all students.