Here’s How Higher Education Leaves Behind America’s Poor

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Undergraduate education in the United States has taken some major strides in the last decade or two. However, there remains a gap in availability for lower socioeconomic groups, especially when you narrow your view to look specifically at the affordability of community college and trade schools versus public — and especially private — four-year institutions. Even so, earning a bachelor’s degree, regardless of where you receive it, dramatically increases your chances of finding steady employment and earning a liveable wage, and enrollment numbers are up.

Enrollment Increases

First, the good news: enrollment in higher education has increased a significant amount in the last few decades, and it’s projected to continue in this pattern. The National Center for Education Statistics shows an increase of 48 percent in undergraduate enrollment between fall of 2012 and 1990 — the difference of 12 million students and 17.7 million. It’s expected that by 2023 that number could reach as high as 20.2 million. Women have outnumbered men in post-baccalaureate programs since 1988, and minority enrollment has also been increasing — though more modestly. Hispanic enrollment increased from 4 to 14 percent between 1976 and 2011, African American enrollment increased from 10 to 15 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islander increased from 2 to 6 percent.


Poverty Disadvantages in Higher Education

Socioeconomic division in enrollment is perhaps an even more important statistic, and ties in with the diversity of student bodies in many cases; poverty statistics for both African Americans and Hispanics far surpasses the national average at 27.4 and 26.6 percent, respectively, compared to 9.9 percent for white Americans — according to the National Poverty Center.

It’s a far greater disparity than anything we’d talk about with race,” said Richard Sander, a professor at UCLA School of Law, to Forbes. “The pervasive problem in admissions offices is class-sim, not racism — they’re biased against low-income students.” Postsecondary Education Opportunity reports that 79 percent of students in the upper tier of income quartile obtain bachelor’s degrees. On the bottom end of income quartiles, a mere 11 percent receive degrees from four-year universities.

Since community colleges are so much more affordable, many in lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to enroll in community colleges and two-year programs rather than four-year institutions. Many of these programs are incredibly important, and some have strong programs and graduation rates, but in general there are distinct statistical disadvantages to going the more affordable route — which, for many, is the only option.

How Community College and Four-Year Degree Opportunities Differ

There are advantages to four-year universities that extend far beyond employment opportunities. Networking is one advantage many private universities boast, but it isn’t one to be taken likely — nor is name recognition. Breakthrough Collaborative, a group that focuses on helping lower socioeconomic students go to college, addresses the advantages and disadvantages specifically in its paper. “The likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree is significantly reduced if a student starts her post-secondary education at a community college.”

The Hechinger Report — and education news publication — suggests that some low graduation rates in community colleges may be inflated, skewed because government statistics don’t count those who complete at least 30 credits at a community college before transferring. Even so, a number of additional factors still come into play. For example, those who take year off before transferring are 26 percent less likely to receive their degree, and those who transfer are less likely to receive a bachelor’s degree than students who first get their associate’s and then transfer — a difference of 56 to 72 percent.

What’s more, the Breakthrough report states that low-income students, first generation undergrads, and minority students all have a reduced likelihood to transfer to a four-year institution from a smaller school. It also quotes stats from the National Center for Education Statistics, which show that usually community college students have a longer time between enrollment and graduating with a bachelor’s. Holders of associate’s degrees also earn $13,000 less every year than holders of bachelor’s degrees.

Diversity Efforts From the Best Schools

Some of the best schools in the United States have made efforts to counteract the lack of socioeconomic diversity at their universities. According to The New York Times, Vassar has made efforts to keep spending down, the University of Florida and Amherst both have additional finances they’ve put together to help out low-income students, and Grinnell requires that 15 percent of incoming freshman be first generation college attendees. Even with all of those changes, and with constant emphasis on diversity from universities across the United States, very little progress has been made toward increasing poor students access to better institutions.

According to The NYT’s consideration of a number of surveys from the National Center for Education Statistics, there hasn’t been a significant increase in poor student enrollment at “selective colleges” between the 1990s and 2012. The number of students from impoverished backgrounds remains under the 15 percent.

But What About Scholarships?

There are many hidden expenses that go with four-year universities — even for scholarship holders. Living expenses are often higher in areas where the best schools are located, and if scholarships don’t pay for dorm living — which is often required for the first year or two in some schools — that can be an enormous expense. Many students work part- or full-time while in school, making more rigorous coursework more difficult to balance.

Additionally, many students from poorer public schools are disadvantaged in their studies from the start. Schools, both private and public, offer a range of quality in primary and secondary education preparedness for college. Some offer Advanced Placement courses, while others don’t even offer Calculus, and still others require a rigorous application process to get into, even at the kindergarten level, that basically guarantee an Ivy League spot. Scholarships are limited and can’t counteract many of the other inequalities. Some are well-constructed to help students pay for hundreds of dollars worth of books and materials, but others are more limited.

There’s also the fact that many scholarships don’t go to help low-income applicants but are instead merit-based. A real irony can be seen with this when it comes to lottery scholarships. Certain states utilize lottery revenue in order to help their universities fund scholarships. But because many of these scholarships are not need-based, a degree of injustice trickles in. A huge majority of lotto players are from poorer subgroups; the larger your income, the less likely you are to spend money on the lottery. As a result, you have the poorest Americans paying, indirectly, for far wealthier students to attend university.

On a parting note, Americans might keep in mind that most Norwegians pay less than $100 a semester to attend any and all public universities.

More From Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS