Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Injustice shapes higher education in the U. S.

As I grew up, I heard one consistent mantra when it came to success in life: get an education!

As a matter of fact, everyone around me taught me and all of my friends to get all of the education we possibly could. A good education provided a ticket to success and the development and fulfillment of many dreams.

I think all of us operated on this basic assumption.

I also think that most of us continue to accept the premise and the notion that in this country anyone can progress beyond their origins thanks to the availability of great educational opportunities and options. All you have to do is take advantage of the opportunities that are readily available.

Today, sadly, these notions are naive at best and simply contrary to the facts.

First, the cost of higher education, even at our public institutions, has increased dramatically over the past decade. At the same time, funds for programs like the Pell Grant have been repeatedly slashed. It costs more to pay for a university education at a time when funds for low-income students continue to evaporate.

Second, and even more dramatic, public universities pursue policies today that block access to the poor. A shift away from traditional, need-based assistance to poor students to a "merit formula" that unfairly benefits students from affluent families is making it harder and harder for bright students from low-income families to make it into college life.

The Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation devoted to monitoring education in the nation, recently released a report that should open eyes. Read the entire report at:

The report's executive summary includes this telling paragraph:

"The nationĂ‚’s 50 flagship universities serve disproportionately fewer low-income and minority students than in the past, according to a new report by the Education Trust. Students in the entering and graduating classes at these schools look less and less like the state populations those universities were created to serve. The study shows how financial aid choices made by these prestigious public universities result in higher barriers to college enrollment and success among low-income students and students of color."

Public institutions of higher education were founded on the idea that, in exchange for citizen support in the form of tax dollars, they would devote themselves to opening broad access to the advantages andopportunitiess of a higher education for anyone interested in doing the work.

Such policy is virtually gone at major state institutions that now operate like exclusive private universities.

Talk to anyone at one of the major public universities in Texas. You'll likely hear about how many students applied, as compared to the fraction that made it in. You'll also hear about SAT averages--a measure that unduly favors the well-to-do students who have had the advantage of prep courses and prep schools.

The major state universities also compete for students from higher-income families at the expense of the those from poor families, even though their grades and performance make it clear that once in the classroom they do very well.

The sad fact is these poor students don't enjoy the options of the wealthy. For the poor, it is a state university or nothing most of the time. Now, that option is narrowing dramatically.

Here's a real shocker: aid to families earning over $100,000 annually has more than quadrupled at these major state universities. In fact, the average institutional grant tostudentss from high-income families is larger than the average grant to low or middle-income students.

The result? High-performing students from low-income backgrounds are far less likely to attend college than students from affluent backgrounds and they are less likely to complete 4-year degrees if they do attend.

So, if a college education is the price of passage into middle class America, these trends mean that upward mobility for entire groups of people is pretty much a cruel myth attainable by only a comparativehandfull of those who begin well behind the starting line.

Looking for an example of broad based, systemic injustice rooted firmly in current public policy?
Look no further, you've found it!


Unknown said...


I don't know where they're getting their information, but I work with scholarships at UT-Austin, and only a small program (6-10 scholarships/year) ignores need. For the vast majority of scholarships, need is a requirement, and while we probably set the income level for need higher than you would, it's not $100K family of four.

Could the amount given to higher-income students be because more of them apply or are made aware of grants and other resources? Or because so many more of them are attending these schools?

The SAT is definitely flawed, especially with all the prep courses. Class rank is the best indicator of whether a student will complete a degree, but a lot of the SAT scores accompanying "Top 10%" students are so low that they can't handle the freshman-level classes. I know UT has set up a program with satellite campuses to allow any Texas high school graduate to attend those and guarantee a transfer to UT-Austin if they achieve a certain GPA their first year (I believe 3.0).

I can guarantee most of UT's scholarships (at least the university-wide ones administered by Texas Exes) go to needy students who also show merit. There certainly aren't enough to go around, which can cause problems when we give several smaller ones that or might not be enough to significantly help, but they're not going to the rich. I would assume that most of these universities also aren't ignoring the needy, but limited by scarce resources.

Larry James said...

Charles, thanks for this. Take a look at the report. It is fairly clear. I wonder if you take a look at all the scholarships, additional programs, etc., even at UT, that you wouldn't have a slightly different picture. One way to gauge this is to evaluate the minority population at places like UT. I think it will be surprising.

I am talking about university policy and procedures. Are you employed by the university or do you work administering a private scholarship fund>

Anonymous said...

A great way for students who can't afford to have their families pay for college is student loans. I just graduated and am going to be paying $17,000 in student loans for the next few years. There is no shame in this. I believe that loans are a great form of financial aid, and loans, actually, allow more low income students to go to college. If the point of going to college is to get a degree which in turn allows the student to have a higher paying job, then it is reasonable that the student can pay off the student loans. What do you think

Unknown said...

I'm a volunteer with the Texas Exes Scholarship Committees, and I've been involved in almost all selection committees at one time or another.

I haven't had time to read through the entire report (and I can't currently hit the link), but I definitely see some statistics being taken out of context. For example, aid to richer students has gone up at a higher rate, but still not as fast as tuition - could tuition hikes be forcing more non-poor parents and students to apply for aid?

Are you saying there's a disparate effect, or that the institutions are deliberately trying to keep minorities/poor students out? I'm fairly critical of UT-Austin and much of higher education, but I don't think they aim to exclude. A major problem is that richer schools have better college counseling resources - many aid sources are first-come, first-serve for all eligible applicants, so those who know to apply early will get more.

What would you like universities do to improve the situation? I assume you wouldn't want to penalize people for not being in a protected class, right? Let me know, and maybe I can find out some answers from UT at least.

Larry James said...

Charles, thank you for your thoughtful post.

What is at work it seems to me is the law of unintended consequences and no proactive strategy to make sure that students from low-income families, neighborhoods and schools have a shot at taking the next step with their lives from an educational standpoint. Part of the problem is the rising cost of tuition at our public institutions and government cutbacks in funding for aid, etc. Part of it is the universities' pressure to attract the best students with as little risk as possible.

All I am saying is these public institutions need to proactively create pathways for low income students to have a fair chance. I believe all of the data today indicates we are headed in the wrong direction.

Anonymous said...


I thought this editorial was interesting. It's not totally the same topic, but in one of the comments, a guy that I'm going to guess is middle class and white said, "Outside of the little world of Fort Collins, there are literally millions of college students wishing to be able to go to a school as inexpensive as CSU. Quit complaining about nickels and dimes."

Nickels and dimes that come out as student fees and tuition hikes, which burden the would-be learner, particularly those of lower incomes, are not so inconsequential.... but then, this mindset of athletes and celebrities ruling the world prevails. We have our priorities so messed up, don't we?

Pate The Great's Papa said...


I'm working backwards here... but in a more recent post concerning "The state of Texas children" I found this data when I followed your link...

Texas in Context
Median Age: 33
Average Household Size: 2.7
Rural Population Percentage: 17.5%
Home-Ownership Rate: 63.8%
Language Other Than English Spoken at Home: 31.2%
Adult Population with High School Diploma: 75.7%
Adult Population with Bachelor's Degree: 23.2%
Texas House District(s): NA
Texas Senate District(s): NA

How does this data factor in to the topic of this post? Specifically the data concerning the adult population with HS diploma and the significantly smaller percentage of the population with
a bachlor's degree?

Thanks for getting the wheels turning this morning.