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College Access & Economic Mobility

Posted by: Brad Bernatek on 6/8/2011

I’m going to Atlanta in two weeks to moderate a panel at the National Charter School Conference on Practices to Increase College Success and it’s got me thinking about college access and success.   Having come from the K-12 world where we thought more about preparation than access, I was shocked to read the recent New York Times article “Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite” particularly when my own alma mater, the University of Michigan was highlighted for admitting more entering freshmen in 2003 from families earning more than $200,000 than from the bottom half of the income distribution.  This statistic was particularly troubling for me personally as a first-generation college graduate.  I am very fortunate to have finished my undergraduate degree (even with a 5th year) with very generous financial aid support and as a result, very modest student loans that were paid off a couple of years ago.

Conventional wisdom suggests that academic preparedness, or lack thereof, largely explains the correlation between enrollment in top-tier universities and family income but a recent study referenced in the NY Times story by the New Century Foundation entitled “How Increasing College Access is Increasing Inequality” provides data from 2004 showing that the percentage of students in the top –scoring quartile (of the test distribution in the National Educational Longitudinal Survey) attending a four-year college varies dramatically by socio-economic background.  Within the top-scoring quartile, students in top socio-economic quartile were twice as likely to attend a four-year college as students in the bottom socio-economic quartile and five times less likely to not attend college at all.  And this was all before the “Great Recession.”

Where are we now?  If high potential students from low income backgrounds were enrolling in four-year colleges at half the rate of their high income counterparts almost ten years ago, the secular trends of the Great Recession have introduced powerful head winds that are making these challenges even more acute.  Student loan debt has nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years and now exceeds credit card debt according to Mark Kantrowitz at Fastweb.com.   The bifurcation of public university systems has become more pronounced as state flagship universities mimic their private counterparts with large fundraising programs, rising tuition rates to offset the loss of state funding and actively competing for top students nationwide while other state institutions endure more drastic cuts without the ability to leverage the mitigation strategies of the flagships.  The Education Trust recently published a report called, “Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial Aid-Policies Hurt Low-Income Students” that asserts that none of the nation’s public flagship universities were among a set of five institutions that met relatively conservative criteria for affordability, quality, and accessibility. 

These trends are sobering to say the least and as a country we have some serious soul searching to do regarding our priorities and the implications of these trends on socio-economic mobility going forward.  That being said, I also think there is room for hope because of the kind of work I am engaged in with my colleagues at FSG.  I’m excited to moderate the panel I mentioned early because we will be talking with leaders from YES Prep Public Schools, the SEED Foundation, and the Christo Ray Network on successful strategies they are already using to ensure both post-secondary access and success for low income students.  In addition, we also collaborated with the Greater Texas Foundation in 2010 on “Dollars for Degrees: Structuring Post-Secondary Scholarships to Increase Student Success” which examines how funders can structure their scholarship awards and provide access to key non-financial supports to improve post-secondary access, persistence and completion.  Although focused on Texas, the implications and the opportunities for improvement are applicable across the country.  The road is clearly steep and may be getting steeper in some ways but it’s exciting to be able to play a role in the solution – one project or one panel at a time.

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