Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—Parents Play Crucial Role in Expanding Universities

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Parents Play Crucial Role in Expanding Universities

By Richard Rothstein

President Bush has signed an education bill designed to “leave no child behind.” But even if elementary and secondary schools improve for disadvantaged students, the goal of offering every child a good education won’t be met unless lower-income high school graduates can afford college, and unless there is growth in state university systems that are now barely large enough to serve the middle class.

Federal aid for college attendance now consists of loans or tax credits. The credit is of little value to low-income students because only families that pay income tax can benefit. So some in Congress now want to create a federal scholarship program.

But expansion of higher education faces two obstacles. First, low-income families who would benefit from scholarships have little political influence. And second, the economic rationale for producing more college graduates is murky. As a matter of social justice, low-income students should be able to compete with those from the middle class for the better jobs that require college degrees. But the number of such jobs is not expanding as fast as many people think.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that from 2000 to 2010, 21 percent of job vacancies will require bachelor’s degrees and that by 2010, about 29 percent of young people will finish college. But the retiring baby boom generation is so big that it will take a larger share of young workers to replace the retirees whose jobs require college. So the projected rate of college attendance should produce about as many new degrees as there will be positions requiring them.

But this balance will disappear if colleges expand much further. In the late 1970’s after colleges grew to absorb the baby boomers, there was a surplus of college graduates. Many took jobs requiring only high school skills.

The bureau says this trend continued into the 1980’s and 1990’s, with many college graduates still holding jobs that really require only a high school education. Some of these were middle-aged workers who had lost jobs in corporate downsizing or in aerospace reductions as the cold war ended. These laid-off employees did not have the flexibility to adapt to new jobs and they demanded higher salaries than new college graduates. So while older graduates took jobs requiring only high school degrees, more young graduates were still being hired.

Employers apparently took advantage of this surplus in professional, technical and managerial workers by reducing wage offers. A steady drop in average pay for college-educated workers from the 1970’s to the mid-1990’s is evidence of this.

In the late 1990’s, wages for college graduates again began to rise. There may now be more demand for college graduates, but the data are not strong enough to justify a big expansion of higher education on economic grounds alone. It will have to be a matter of social justice, and this complicates the political prospects for increased university capacity and for financial aid.

In the past, higher education has also grown mostly as a result of social forces, not in response to employer demands. The biggest expansions took place after World War II and again in the 1960’s. President Harry S. Truman’s G.I. Bill was intended to keep veterans in school and off the job market when there was no work for them in a still-militarized economy. In 1958 after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the government began a small college loan program, hoping to train more scientists. In this case, skill shortages did fuel a small growth in higher education. But the big university expansions of the 1960’s were financed by states in response to political pressure from parents – because there was no room in existing colleges for their baby-boom children.

Policies in the Midwest illustrate how higher education capacity reacts to parents more than labor markets. States like Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin pay for high-quality public universities although these states get no economic benefit from the many graduates who leave the region for jobs elsewhere.

Can parental pressure now spur further growth in higher education? An influential middle class demanded college expansion during the baby boom. But now the shortage of college seats is concentrated in rapidly growing states like California, Florida and Texas that can’t (or won’t) expand colleges fast enough.

Many students in these states are the first in their families to finish high school. Their low-income and minority parents may not have the political influence to get legislatures to add the needed college capacity.

This demographic and political imbalance will also affect the federal debate about scholarships. Some employers will plead for more graduates, but only parental pressure can ultimately win aid for higher education.

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