America, land of opportunity, where hard work and merit determines who gets ahead. A nation where a good education, the gateway to success, is available to all.
Not so fast, I’m afraid. America is actually losing ground in providing access to college. And disparities in income are responsible. How bad is the situation? It seems that, “bright and focused kids from poor families are going to college at the same rate as unfocused or low-scoring kids from families much better off.” This quotation is from a recent piece by Andrew Delbanco, “The Universities in Trouble,” in The New York Review of Books. It’s worth a read. Here is an excerpt.
But the public–private partnership that did much to democratize American higher education has been coming apart. In 1976, federal Pell grants for low-income students covered 72 percent of the average cost of attending a four-year state institution; by 2003, Pell grants covered only 38 percent of the cost. Meanwhile, financial aid administered by the states is being allocated more and more on the basis of “merit” rather than need—meaning that scholarships are going increasingly to high-achieving students from high-income families, leaving deserving students from low-income families without the means to pay for college.
In 2002, a federal advisory committee issued a report, aptly entitled “Empty Promises,” which estimated that “more than 400,000 students nationally from families with incomes below $50,000” met the standards of college admission “and yet were unable to enroll in a four-year college because of financial barriers. More than 160,000 of these students did not attend any college because of these barriers, not even a two-year institution.” Two years later one leading authority pointed out that “the college-going rates of the highest-socioeconomic-status students with the lowest achievement levels is the same level as the poorest students with the highest achievement levels.” In short, bright and focused kids from poor families are going to college at the same rate as unfocused or low-scoring kids from families much better off.
1. Donald E. Heller quoted in Paul Attewell and Davd E. Lavin, Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007), p. 199; Donald E. Heller, “A Bold Proposal: Increasing College Access Without Spending More Money,” Crosstalk, Fall 2004; and Brian K. Fitzgerald and Jennifer A. Delaney, “Educational Opportunity in America,” Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students, edited by Donald E. Heller (ACE/Praeger, 2002).