Public Schools Look to Join in the Spotlight
> 12/20/2006 10:58:57 AM

Administrators at some public universities across the country are not content with being second tier, and major changes are underway to boost performance and attract more high-ranking high school seniors - but will these attempts to improve school profiles ultimately benefit their students? Are they more concerned with garnering attention on the national stage or offering quality education to as many residents as possible?

While many students see public institutions as more practical counterparts to private, selective universities (an issue we've covered here at TOL Ed), the economic challenges now facing these top colleges also trickle down to public and state schools across the country. Tuitions have risen at almost identical rates and financial aid issues take precedence over many other elements of the school equation. According to the well-known advocacy group Education Trust, these schools are compromising their missions by attempting to attract more affluent students and neglecting those in the lower income brackets.

Between 1995 and 2003, flagship and other research-extensive public universities actually decreased grant aid by 13 percent for students from families with an annual income of $20,000 or less, while they increased aid to students from families who make more than $100,000 by 406 percent. In 2003, these institutions spent a combined $257 million to subsidize the tuition of students from families with annual incomes over $100,000 a staggering increase from the $50 million they spent in 1995. At the same time, poor students were disproportionately bearing the brunt of increased college tuition and fees.

On the other hand, states make large taxpayer-funded investments in these schools and expect to see visible results in the form of grants for research and performance as well as employment opportunities for state residents. Administrators argue that, in order to compete realistically with other public and private schools in this regard, their schools need increased funding and a more selective student body that will inevitably include more out-of-state attendees. One of the most effective ways to attract students of all stripes is to offer larger financial aid packages. In this way the schools can justify raising tuition and accepting more high-income applicants.

These schools obviously need to find some sort of middle ground. While heightened GPAs and research grants are keys to the success of ambitious universities, those most in need are not well served by the interests of the schools in question. Ideally, schools who gear themselves toward serving high-achieving low-income and minority students will receive their share of praise. Leaving these kids out of the equation will ultimately not increase their standing in the public eye.

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