Commentary

The yawning and growing gap between rich and poor college students

In case you missed it in the end-of-the-year hubbub, there was a powerful, worth-your-time December story by reporters Jon Marcus and Holly Hacker at the Hechinger Report entitled “The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast: Rich, poor take paths even more dramatically divergent than in the past, new data show.” According to the authors, higher education is increasingly, like the rest of our society, divided into classes of haves and have-nots. In many instances, wealthy kids go to exclusive schools that look a lot like country clubs and resorts while poorer students scramble to survive on dingy, overcrowded campuses run by overworked and underpaid teachers and administrators:

“Once acclaimed as the equal-opportunity stepping stone to the middle class, and a way of closing that divide, higher education has instead become more segregated than ever by wealth and race as state funding has fallen and colleges and universities — and even states and the federal government — are shifting financial aid from lower-income to higher-income students. This has created a system that spends the least on those who need the most help and the most on those who arguably need the least. While almost all the students who go to selective institutions such as Trinity graduate and get good jobs, many students from the poorest families end up even worse off than they started out, struggling to repay loans they took out to pay for degrees they never get.”

The story goes on to explain in great detail how the systems we have constructed are designed to favor wealthier students and families in myriad ways:

“It’s not about academic ability. The lowest-income students with the highest scores on eighth-grade standardized tests are less likely to go to selective colleges than the highest-income students with the lowest test scores, according to the Education Trust, which advocates for students who are being left behind in this way. If they do manage to make it to a top school, many do well — at Trinity, for instance, finishing with even higher graduation rates than their wealthier classmates.

Yet more than a fifth of those high-achieving low-income students never go to college at all, never mind to top colleges, the Education Trust says. Only 16 percent find their way to highly selective schools, and fewer than half continue their educations anywhere, compared to nearly all of their wealthier counterparts at every level of ability.

Cost is a principal reason, of course. Average tuition has more than doubled since 1970 when adjusted for inflation, according to the Pell Institute, and income and financial aid have not remotely kept pace. Among other reasons for the huge tuition increases: the pricey arms race in amenities to attract higher-income students, a huge increase in the number of administrators, and other non-academic expenses, all fueled by the easy supply of government-subsidized loans.”

The story also quotes multiple experts who point to specific policies that could be enacted to address this growing crisis — things like requiring elite universities to dramatically increase the number of low income students they admit. Unfortunately, the authors found little enthusiasm for these solutions or leadership on the matter of addressing the divide in the higher education community:

“[Pell Institute Scholar Tom] Mortenson, for one, is not optimistic. Access to an equitable college education ‘is really crucial to what America is, was, and at least used to stand for,’ he said. ‘It clearly doesn’t stand for that any more. The data show, in every way you look at it, that we’re on the wrong path.’”

And sadly, here in North Carolina, the recent appointment of Margaret Spellings (a for-profit college apologist and former board member of a higher education debt collector) as the new President of the UNC system offers little hope that our state will take action to resist these destructive trends any time soon.

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