American higher education: ever more unequal

The report I want to discuss begins by grabbing our lapels, like this:

"Give em Hell, Harry" buttonIn 1947…  Harry S. Truman warned in a report of his Commission on Higher Education, “If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.”
Now over 60 years later – well into the 21st century – these words read as an eerie foreshadowing to the state of higher education in the United States today.

That’s how the Pell Institute opens its new report on higher education equity (pdf).  Pell assembled 45 years of data, and their conclusions? Family income strongly drives access to higher education, and more so than ever before.

For example, “In 2012, 81 percent of 18 to 24 year olds from the top family income quartile participated in college, compared with just 45 percent of those in the bottom quartile.” And the higher the family income, the more likely the student attends a more highly ranked institution: the more likely that institution is private, for four years, and not for profit.

enrollment by institution and family wealth

Pell grants maxed out in the 1970s, and are now far below college costs (covering 27% of the average, down from 67%).   State support to publics has dropped, of course.  Put these together and you get:

The shift in payment sources from state and local governments to students and parents has occurred at the same time that costs have risen dramatically and in a period where average wages have been static or declined in constant dollars.

One note on college costs: they are rising at the top.  Which means:

The average net price of attendance at the institutions attended by students from the highest income quartile is growing at a faster rate than at institutions attended by students in the lowest income quartile. This suggests increasing stratification across groups in the types of postsecondary education options that students from different groups can access…

That’s all for inputs: students heading to college and taking classes.  Differences are even sharper on the other end, as class hugely drives successfully getting an undergrad degree:

In 2013 those from high-income families were 8 times more likely to obtain a bachelors’ degree by age 24 than those from low-income families. In 1970 individuals from high-income families were 5 times more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than those from low-income families.

It’s getting worse.

BA/BS attainment by class

Be sure to read to the end of the report, where Margaret Cahalan lays out a very detailed and ambitious program to address this massive imbalance (43-52).

I’ve been writing about this problem for a few months, but want to leave the final words for the report’s authors.

Once known for wide accessibility to and excellence within its higher education system, the U.S. now has an educational system that serves to sort students in ways related to later life chances based on their demographic characteristics rather than provide all youth with the opportunity to use their creative potential to realize the many benefits of higher education and advance the well-being and progress of the nation…

(Truman photo by Ron Wade Buttons)

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4 Responses to American higher education: ever more unequal

  1. Keep writing about this Bryan – and so will I. It’s so very important.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    not the lone, long overdue post of doom in the wilderness — I’m just behind in sharing but will catch up. Blame on the groundhog.

  3. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2016: education contexts | Bryan Alexander

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