A Dream Deferred: College Access vs. College Readiness

We know that in the US, educational attainment is the largest predictor of earning power.  And now more than ever, a college education is necessary to secure a good job.  This trend, coupled with the national imperative to raise standards to compete globally, has propelled an abundance of educational reform efforts, ranging from common core standards to foundational initiatives.  For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested almost $4 billion to increase the levels of college-readiness in K-12 education.  Additionally, these efforts are often framed as issues of equity, arguing greater college preparation expands opportunities for low-income and minority students.

In the meantime, while we focus our attention on getting the next generation of students “college ready,” we have thousands of students whose American dream is deferred – where college tuition expenses limit the ability to attend higher education institutions for even the highest-achieving underrepresented students.  That’s what financial aid is for, right?  Wrong.  Many states have cut the share of state income going to need-based higher education aid and budget a larger proportion to merit-based assistance.  Of the roughly fifteen states that do offer financial aid programs, the majority of money is allocated on merit-based (or academic) qualifications compared to need-based aid, $1.5 billion and $350 million respectively (Heller 2004; Ness & Tucker 2008). For instance, in Georgia, the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship program which provides tuition assistance at a Georgia public institution has no income cap restrictions.

Generally, most people recognize that access to college is not equal, and that family background influences one’s chances of obtaining a college degree.  In fact, a great body of literature is devoted to examining how students’ socioeconomic status (SES) affects college access (e.g. parental involvement, social capital, course taking, etc.).  However, what gets left out of the discussion is how current higher education policy limits college access for low-income families (and by extension, minority families).  Initial enrollment rates of academically qualified low-income high school graduates in four-year colleges fell from 54 percent to 40 percent between 1992 and 2004 (ACSFA 2010).  The most recent studies find that grant aid from all sources is not adequate to promote access of qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates.  The troubling trends of the last two decades suggest that in terms of access to higher education, inequality by income is actually increasing.

National reports point to rising tuition costs, affirmative action repeals, and increasing competition for college entrance as the driving forces behind growing college participation gaps by both income and race.  These patterns come after great progress in the 1960’s and 1970’s, where tuition prices were stable, need-based financial aid was raised, and the creation of work study programs increased college attendance for low-income and first generation college students.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal and rationale behind universal targeted programs as a political strategy.  Especially in times when most Americans worry about rising college education costs, everyone feels economic pain and uncertainty.  But what gets lost in the universalism rhetoric is that merit-based financial aid (particularly programs that rely heavily on SAT/ACT scores) reorganizes student aid budgets to fund programs that actually make college access even more unequal.  Read National Public Radio’s article about Alonzo Mendez, a 19-year-old student in Georgia, for more information on the burden of rising tuition costs for students, the impact of state budget cuts, and merit eligibility criteria for state scholarship money.

Scholarships often make or break the decision to go on to college for low-income students like Mendez. However, research suggests many more affluent students already bound for college receive merit-based funds despite not needing them.  While students from traditionally underrepresented groups in higher education and who face the greatest financial obstacles to get to college have increasingly more difficultly entering four-year institutions.  Thus, hypothetically (and ambitiously), even if we do begin to make significant progress in college preparation for future students, we need to critically examine the role of federal and state-level policy in reproducing the status quo or in expanding opportunities that are currently foreclosed by a family’s income….particularly in a country that views education as the great equalizer.

Please stay tuned for a forthcoming Kingsbury study (a follow up to the High Flyers report), which tackles the issue of college readiness and academic growth of high achievers in low- and high-poverty schools.

*This blog title pays homage to African American poet and social activist Langston Hughes, whose work Montage of a Dream Deferred juxtaposed the state of Harlem in the 1950’s to the rest of society.