In a time where advanced education is critical to the United States’ standing in the global economy, students are finding that getting that education is becoming far more difficult, especially students who do not come from wealthy backgrounds.

Most Americans believe that access to higher education should be based on ability and merit, yet in the wake of university budget shortfalls some schools are creating a pay-to-play policy with their admissions.

Facing fallen endowments and needier students, many colleges are looking more favorably on wealthier applicants as they make their admissions decisions this year.

Once again, our higher education system is contributing to the socioeconomic status quo.

“There’s going to be a cascading of talented lower-income kids down the social hierarchy of American higher education, and some cascading up of affluent kids,” said Morton Owen Schapiro, the president of Williams College and an economist who studies higher education.

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This year, many of these colleges say they are more inclined to accept students who do not apply for aid, or whom they judge to be less needy based on other factors, like zip code or parents’ background.

Many of these schools are opting to admit a higher percentage of wealthy foreign students than in the past, since they are not eligible for public scholarships and pay the highest tuition rates. This means that fewer admission spots will be available to American students, further contributing to the United States’ comparative education decline.

The economy has also severely affected admittance into Ph.D. programs, leaving the United States in danger of losing even more ground in the information economy.

Several colleges have recently announced that, regardless of application quality, they plan to admit fewer Ph.D. students for this coming fall than were admitted a year ago. The economics of doctoral education are different enough from those of other programs that some universities’ doctoral classes will be taking a significant hit, with potential ramifications down the road for the academic job market, the availability of teaching assistants, and the education of new professors.

The reduction of Ph.D. students admitted into programs will have negative consequences down the road when we look to a new generation of academics and researchers to make the innovations and form the ideas that will lead the country forward.

Charles B. Reed and F. King Alexander have a proposal in Inside Higher Ed calling for a “new kind of institutional aid” that would support colleges and universities that admit lower-income students.

To attempt to change this ominous direction to focus on the new generation of students with the greatest educational needs, it is imperative that we revisit the “cost of education allowances” program and develop a federal Title I type program for higher education institutions. This policy would provide a specific flat “capitation” institutional grant per lower-income student to every college and university that meets a minimal enrollment threshold of 20 percent.

Reed and Alexander argue that the current “individualistic and market-oriented approach to funding higher education by simply putting resources in the hands of students” has resulted in “perverse fiscal and institutional incentives,” despite being worthwhile. They believe that their proposal could reduce the challenges facing universities and low-income students that have led to the return of pay-to-play admissions mentioned earlier.

Part of the problem is that many short-sighted Republican state legislatures have been attempting to balance their state budgets on the backs of students, leaving universities no choice but to raise tuition rates and cater to the wealthiest applicants.

The United States needs a strategic plan; one that focuses on long-term investment in infrastructure, research, and human capital. We need more ideas on how to improve and progress like those posed by Reed and Alexander, and most important, we need the courage and values to implement them.