[Excerpt] The United States no longer leads the world in college completion rates. Inequality in college access rates by income have barely narrowed over the last 25 to 30 years and inequality in college completion rates have narrowed even less. The groups in the population that are growing the most rapidly are those that have historically been underrepresented in higher education. What types of federal policies might help to address these issues in the face of tuition levels at private colleges and universities that have risen for over a century by an average of 2 to 3.5 percent a year more than the rate of inflation and tuition levels at public colleges and university that have recently risen at similar rates. And why does tuition keep rising and can anything be done about that? Improving undergraduate access and persistence through to graduation is not the only goal for higher education policy. We should seek to improve, or at least maintain, the quality of higher education. We should also remember that higher education is much more than undergraduate education. The scientific research that goes on at research universities is essential for our nation’s economic well-being. So too are the doctoral students who contribute to the production of research and become the next generation of college faculty and researchers. Finally, there is the role of land grant universities specifically, and public higher education more generally, in improving the welfare of the population beyond their enrolled students through extension and outreach activities.
Public policies that affect any of these other aspects of higher education will inevitably influence the ability of academic institutions to improve access and persistence. For example, over the last 25 to 30 years the share of the ever expanding research budgets at America’s research universities financed out of institutional funds (such as endowment income and annual giving) has increased. A recent Congressional proposal to cap indirect cost reimbursement rates at 35% on basic-research grants and contracts financed by the Defense Department would further shift the costs of funding research onto the universities, leaving them with fewer resources to provide grant aid for students and/or putting more pressure on their tuition levels.