Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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Often overlooked elsewhere, middle-class students are being served well at UNLV

2019 UNLV Spring Commencement

Steve Marcus

A woman looks for family members as she arrives for UNLV commencement at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday, May 18, 2019. Graduates, about 3,000, ranged in age from 18 to 71 and came from across the U.S. and from 50 foreign countries.

In the effort to strengthen the American middle class, it would seem obvious to ensure that the educational needs of middle-class students are being met. Yet as Richard Reeves points out, those students often are overshadowed in discussions about higher education.

“A lot of the focus is about how many low-income kids we’re getting into college and how many will end up at the top end, or we focus on the elites who get into college — like the college admission scandal,” said Reeves, a policy expert in education and socioeconomic issues at the Brookings Institution.

In a new paper, however, Reeves offers promising news about how UNLV and some other Mountain West institutions are serving middle-class students. Examining students’ outcomes and economic data, Reeves concluded that UNLV was doing an above-average job of helping middle-class students either move up the ladder or at least maintain their level as compared to their parents.

That’s an important accomplishment in Las Vegas, where the middle class bore most of the brunt of the recession. As Reeves shows in the report, wage growth has been slower among the middle 60% of income earners than among the top 20 and lowest 20%.

In an interview with the Sun this past spring, Reeves said UNLV also was above average in providing opportunities for middle-class students. That’s important, too, in that those students often face unique challenges in paying for higher education.

“Maybe you’re Pell (grant) eligible, maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re eligible for some financial aid, maybe you’re not,” he said. “So that’s the group I’m increasingly worried about. Because for the very poorest, Pell will cover most of their costs.”

Reeves said colleges were incentivized to accept the most and least wealthy students — the wealthiest because they can largely pay their own way and the poorest because they are likely to obtain grants and financial aid. Meanwhile, institutions are increasingly being judged on how well they can provide avenues for low-income students to move up the economic ladder.

Reeves passionately supports efforts to expand higher education to low-income families — another area in which UNLV performs well — but said he’d grown increasingly concerned that higher education in general was focusing on those students to the disadvantage of those in the middle.

“I’m a bit worried that their incentive is to get the kids from the bottom, celebrate the ones who make it to the top and kind of ignore the kids from the middle who just want a decent college education that allows them to stay in the middle class or rise in it,” he said.

Reeves said the purpose of his report was to show policymakers the importance and benefits of the higher education system serving middle-class students.

“What I want them to do first of all is have a broader notion of success and to recognize the need that widening access to them won’t always mean they’ll go on to do tremendously well,” he said. “Some will just do OK. But maybe just keeping up with mom and dad is an achievement.”

Reeves also is hoping his work will put focus on the need to keep college costs down. He said the gap between costs at universities and community colleges has grown, which is not a healthy trend.

“It makes the two-year institutions look like a better value, and they often are,” he said. “But the problem is that there’s a lot of variability in the outcomes of those who attend two-year colleges. For one thing, retention is a huge issue — dropout rates are high — and having some college and dropping out is basically of no value in the labor market.

“So I don’t think the solution to the rising gap in price is to say, ‘Well, let the four-year prices keep rising and just send more kids to two-year schools.’ I think it’s to stop the four-years from rising.”

While controlling college costs, Reeves said, policymakers should also work to make financial aid available to a broader swath of students and increase state funding to public universities and colleges. After cost-cutting in the aftermath of the recession, he said, there’s now a “structural underfunding” at the state level in higher education.

“I sometimes fear that the general tone of political discourse toward universities and college professors has hardened a bit,” he said. “I think that politically, you can get away with characterizing professors as elitists who are out of touch, which creates a backdrop where you can reduce funding. Because who’s crying in their milk about professors’ salaries?

“But if we’re not careful, we lose high-quality people to other institutions. So if jurisdictions aren’t willing to pay, then they won’t get the quality we need.”

To see the full report, go here.