Another perspective on aid for higher education

Shrinking government budgets have put college and university financial aid under the political microscope. While there is general agreement that the system needs fixing, one segment of higher education has been either misunderstood or ignored: the independent non-profit. Hear more from D. Merrill Ewert, President of Fresno Pacific University, in this edition of Scholars Speak.

Angry debates over state and national budgets have placed higher education in the political crosshairs. The painful cuts facing our public universities have been well-documented. So have abuses by for-profit colleges and individuals who treat financial aid like welfare, collecting money for degrees they have no intention of earning.

These problems have led to calls for wholesale cuts to Cal Grants and Pell Grants, the state and federal aid programs that enable hundreds of thousands of students from families with limited means to attend college. Clearly these abuses must be stopped and the system made accountable. But simply slashing funds will only keep the hardworking majority of students-many the first in their families to attend college—from earning degrees that lead to better jobs, more productive lives and increased value as taxpayers. College degrees benefit more than just the graduate.

Job training is not enough. An INTEL executive recently told Valley higher education leaders that 90 percent of the company's revenues the previous year came from products that hadn't existed 18 months earlier. She argued that a vibrant economy needs more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math. Healthy communities require people with general knowledge, technical skills, business acumen and a spirit of entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, California is moving in the wrong direction. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California found our state will be short one million college-educated workers by 2025. In the year 2000, our state ranked fourth in terms of college-going rates. Today that rate is plummeting. Once the crown jewel of American higher education, California has gutted its funding and seen its college completion numbers collapse.

Independent colleges and universities (the nonprofit privates) have been ignored in the current debate, or lumped in with for-profits by those who don't understand the important differences. Independents are accountable to students and their families, not to shareholders. Congressional hearings found for-profits not only have abysmal graduation rates, but leave students with much higher levels of debt while sticking taxpayers with defaults on federal loans at several times the rate for independent colleges.

Fresno Pacific University is a member of Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (AICCU), and one of the only independent universities based in the Central Valley. The 76 AICCU schools represent 21 percent of California's students attending four-year institutions but grant 23 percent of the undergraduate degrees; that percentage more than doubles when you consider only graduate and professional degrees. AICCU schools have more students than the entire UC system.

Independent universities are good stewards of our students' money and the public trust. Sixty-percent of all students at AICCU schools graduate in four years, 71% among those who receive Cal Grants. The four-year graduation rate at UC campuses is 54 percent, and at CSUs it's 18 percent. For many proprietary schools, that number drops deep into the single digits.

State and federal grants to students at independent colleges not only help those who could not afford college graduate in a timely way, they are a bargain for taxpayers. At an independent university, a Cal Grant is worth at $9,708. This is a fraction of the cost to California taxpayers of sending that same student to a public institution, where everything from buildings to salaries is subsidized by the state—and that is before the cost of Cal Grants, which are higher for students attending UCs.

Last year, FPU students received almost $6 million in Cal Grants, which we matched with nearly $10 million in university aid from endowed scholarships, the general fund and gifts from individuals, churches and other donors.

Higher education is a public good, not simply a personal benefit. In tough economic times, we must continue investing in the future of our state and nation. As public colleges are forced to cut courses and limit enrollments, the independents are keeping higher education accessible to many students; Cal Grants make it affordable.

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