Low Income Students Shut Out Of Selective Colleges

A new book by Century Foundation, Rewarding Strivers, contains a chapter  by Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University and Jeff Strohl. It shows the numbers of four year colleges in the top two tiers of selectivity as measured by Barron”s has increased significantly. Below are comments by Inside Higher Education on June 18 concerning this trend.

“As more colleges have moved up the ‘quality’ scale,  Carnevale and Strohl show that the institutions have become slightly more racially and ethnically diverse, but students from lower-income backgrounds have made virtually no progress in gaining access to more selective colleges.  By 2006, students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile made up 5 percent of students at the most competitive colleges, 7 percent of students at highly competitive colleges, and 8 percent of students at very competitive colleges, up from 3.4 and 8 percent, respectively, in 1982.  They end up disproportionately in nonselective four-year colleges and in open-access two-year institutions.

“When one considers the differences between the inputs and outcomes at the more selective institutions and at nonselective ones  — per-student spending that is 4-5 times as great, and far higher graduation rates and entry-level earnings of students — the stratification by socioeconomic income (and to a lesser but still meaningful extent by race and ethnicity) means that the higher education system operates as an  ‘engine of inequality,’  Carnevale said, noting the major lawsuits that have been filed (and often won) in many states over inequality of access to elementary and secondary education…”

So, “if you can’t move low-income and minority kids en masse into the high-quality systems” of colleges, Carnevale said, the likelier alternative to improving the lot of students ill-served by higher education is to strengthen the quality of the institutions they do attend — “two-year schools and lower-end four-year colleges.”  The Obama administration (which Carnevale has advised in both formal and informal ways) took steps in this direction with its proposed American Graduation initiative, which would have poured $10 billion into community colleges, but had to be scaled back significantly. Moreover, it is not clear exactly what new policies and practices will improve the performance of broad access colleges.

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