Children from families with higher incomes are earning an increasingly higher percentage of college degrees compared to those from lower-income families, University of Washington Professor William Zumeta told the House Higher Education Committee on Monday.
|Chart shows percentage of degree attainment by income level|
However, increases in federal student aid and Washington’s longtime support for state financial aid programs have helped keep college doors open for the less affluent, Zumeta said.
Zumeta, a professor of public affairs and education at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs, presented the House committee with research based on work done by Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. It showed that bachelor’s degree attainment among children from the highest family-income quartile has risen dramatically—from about 40 percent in 1970 to about 75 percent in 2007. Over the same period, attainment in the two lowest-income quartiles stagnated in the roughly 10 to 15 percent range.
Those findings are “very troubling,” especially since higher education often is seen as the “great equalizer” enabling lower-income families to achieve better lives, Zumeta said. Other research shows that an individual’s chances of gaining upward mobility are very limited without a college degree, he said.
Zumeta’s comments came on the first day of the 2011 Legislative Session, as the House Higher Education Committee was holding a work session on higher education’s contributions to the economy and society.
Zumeta presented other data showing that compared to high school graduates, college graduates cost society less in social support programs and incarceration, and generate more local, state and federal tax revenues through higher personal incomes over their working lives. The findings are similar to some of the higher education benefits reported in the HECB’s Key Facts about Higher Education in Washington.
Another UW professor testifying before the committee on Monday was Margaret O’Mara of the Department of History. Her research includes work on the growth of high-tech regions around the world. She believes universities are “central actors” in the development of high tech centers such as Silicon Valley.
“What I’ve found in my research is that you may be able to have a really good university that doesn’t necessarily have a high-tech or knowledge-driven region around it, but you can’t have a knowledge-driven economy without a strong higher education system,” O’Mara said.
O’Mara outlined government decisions to invest heavily in university research during the Cold War period. Washington was one of the states that significantly benefitted from those investments in defense and medical research at academic institutions. Those investments were among the major factors enabling Washington to transform from a Cold War hub to the high-tech capital it is today, Omara said.
While the U.S. no longer has a monopoly on high tech research, “we are still the place where the smartest kids in the world want to come and study,” she said. To preserve that competitive advantage, it is critically important to maintain a higher education system that is strong, robust and accessible, she said.