SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. The editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor likes the idea of permanent funding for Pell Grants.
The US is falling behind in the global race to a college-educated – and thus more competitive – society. In 1998, the share of American 25-to-34-year-olds holding a bachelor's degree was rising, and the US was tied for first place with South Korea. Since 2000, that share has slipped, with America falling to seventh place, behind Korea and Denmark.
And this proves ... ?

The US also gets dismal marks in graduating students who enter college, ranking 26th among the world's democratic market economies that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

[President] Obama wants America to get back on top with college graduates by 2020. To do that, it needs to improve K-12 education and graduation rates (a job that No Child Left Behind is helping to tackle).

Perhaps if the common schools were effective, higher education could be higher. Fewer unprepared students in the door, fewer dropouts?

But it also needs to open up access to college by lowering the financial burden on low-income students, who now account for 44 percent of the K-12 population (as measured by kids who get free or reduced-price school lunches).

The grant's purchasing power has shriveled over the decades. In 1975-76, the maximum grant covered 84 percent of the cost of a four-year public college (and 38 percent of the cost of attending a four-year private college). This academic year, the maximum grant of $4,731 covers 33 percent and 14 percent of those costs, according to an April article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Much of this is due to an explosion in tuition costs, but part of it is because the Pell program can go through years of drought due to congressional budget pressures or politics.

In 1975-1976, a student could make expenses at a state university with a summer factory job and a part-time school year job. The expansion of financial aid since then might have contributed to subsequent tuition increases, something the editorialists recognize.
[President] Obama proposes to fix that by tying Pells to inflation (the administration wisely chose not to link them to tuition increases, which would simply encourage colleges to charge more).
It doesn't follow that throwing more money at low-income students leads to more completion calls for more work.

Neither will reliable Pell Grants necessarily translate into higher degree completion rates. The disparity in bachelor-degree attainment between high- and low-income students has grown even as more Pell money has become available – indicating that students from disadvantaged households need more academic support, and not just more tuition help.

The hard reality is that the federal government can't solve the affordability problem by itself, nor should it be expected to. States must reverse their 30-year slide in spending on public higher ed, which has led to tuition increases. And colleges must emphasize thrift and need-based aid.

Whether or not Obama gets his new entitlement, the demands of the global economy are forcing America to consider whether higher ed should become a public necessity – as high school is. A college degree is now the earnings-driver that a high school diploma once was.

The academic support the editorialists correctly identify might include more effective high schools, which on one hand obviates the two years of college as make-up high school, as it too often is, and on the other equips the students from disadvantaged households to manage a real college curriculum, which is more a test of preparation and persistence than it is of native intelligence.

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