IntroductionThe phenomenon of inequality in higher education is not new, but a longstanding and constant blemish on our education system as a whole. While institutions, states, and regions have vast variation in their school policies, campus cultures, and enrollment decisions, one characteristic holds true: higher education is decidedly stratified by socioeconomic status and by race (Astin & Oseguera, 2004). This stratification is deeply rooted and can be traced back to the segregation of the Jim Crow era, according to a recent North Carolina system study. Clotfelter, Ladd and Vigdor (2015) found that 56% of all African American students attending four-year institutions attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As acknowledged in the study, the availability of these HBCUs raises the overall college enrollment of African American students but serves to increase racial stratification and isolation within the higher education community.Our current education system has been built in an era that does not reflect our current societal norms. The system effectively keeps these outdated norms in place at every step of the higher education process for underrepresented students who are of first generation, low socioeconomic, or minority backgrounds. From the outdated foundations of the admissions, financial aid and matriculation processes, to student support services and graduation rates, underrepresented students are being underserved and presented with barriers their middle and upper-class, white counterparts may not even be aware exist.
The growing numbers of non-resident students at research universities is associated with a decrease in the enrollment numbers of underrepresented minority and low-income students. When institutions are inclined to bring in out of state students who pay more tuition, these students are more likely to be rich and less likely to be students of color. At prestigious universities in states that have higher poverty rates, the enrollment of non-resident students is even higher. This pattern creates a less diverse campus and has implications on campus climate and admissions across these universities. Ironically, these are often institutions that claim they have motives and interest in recruiting underrepresented students and low-income students (Jaquette, Curs, & Posselt, 2016).Despite enrollment rates rising overall, low-income students do not have access to flagship institutions to the same extent that their more advantaged peers do. Low-income students are more likely to be successful at flagship universities with more resources than two-year institutions, but they have more access to the less-competitive two-year schools.
One study analyzed the admissions process at UW-Madison from the application, admissions, and enrollment phases over decades. Based on this study, access is increasing for the students in the top income brackets at the expense of the middle class. As the state of Wisconsin becomes more racially diverse, the applicant pool at UW-Madison remains stratified (Dahill-Brown, Witte, & Wolfe, 2016).
While 30% of students enrolled in these major institutions are from families who earn $115,000 or more annually, they only comprise 20% of total college students. Minority students have the ability to succeed at public flagship universities, but in a competitive admissions world are seldom given the chance compared to their more privileged counterparts (Haycock et al., 2010).
Low-income students are decreasing in proportionate enrollment at selective public and private universities, with those same students increasingly attending lower quality institutions that offer less academic and social support to help them succeed. Students from high-income families are roughly four times more likely than low-income students to go to a highly selective university (Gerald & Haycock, 2006). Researchers with the Equality of Opportunity Project studied a sample of more than 30 million college-going Americans born between 1980 and 1991 and revealed that although low-income students can equally succeed if given the opportunity to go to elite colleges, few of them received that opportunity (McCann, 2017).
The financial policies and decisions in the higher education sector can also help us understand why talented low-income and minority students are so underrepresented at flagship universities. One element seems especially noteworthy is the privatization and accountability trends in U.S. public education, where federal and state governments give institutions greater discretion to collaborate with private sectors and incentivize institutions to “innovate in the pursuit of revenue-generating enrollments and research and service contracts” (Hearn, Warshaw & Ciarimboli, 2016). As postsecondary institutions receive less government-backed funding, and since the public has long deemed university autonomy as essential in knowledge advancement, public universities have to build the capacity to bring revenue from non-governmental resources, which often results in an increase in tuition and fees.
When public universities become increasingly market-driven, affluent students often edge out socioeconomically disadvantaged students during the admission process known as strategic enrollment management, a tool tantamount to offering high-income or academically competent students merit aid. Consequently, two-thirds of the 381 selective public universities reduced enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent; worse still, 54 percent of selective public schools the increase in affluent students came at the direct expense of low-income ones (Burd, 2017). Even though flagship universities receive considerably more support from the government, they use their resources similarly to other public institutions. From 1995 to 2003, they increased grant aid to the lowest income students by 29 percent while increasing grant aid to their wealthiest students by 186 percent (Gerald & Haycock, 2006).In addition, shifts in state funding have passed the responsibility for college financing onto the students, with serious consequences for low-income students (Hearn, Warshaw & Ciarimboli, 2016). Data suggest that although low-income students qualify for the Pell Grant program, the program’s coverage has declined by 13 percent between 2015 and 2005 in respect to the rising college costs. Also, to enroll in a four-year institution, low-income students need to pay on average 84 percent of their family income (Gerald & Haycock, 2006; Hearn, Warshaw & Ciarimboli, 2016).Students from low-income and underrepresented minority backgrounds disproportionately rely on financial aid to pay for higher education (College Board, 2017), and when unavailable, they enroll at rates lower than their middle- and upper-income peers (Dynarski, 2000; Dynarski & Scott-Clayton, 2013).
Dynarski and Scott-Clayton (2013) provide a synthesis of findings from studies conducted on the effect of financial aid on enrollment decisions for low-income and underrepresented students. They summarize findings detailing the positive impact of need-based grant aid on enrollment decisions for that subpopulation. Conversely, merit-based aid programs have been found to limit access by expanding opportunities to disproportionate numbers of students from middle- and upper-income backgrounds.Dynarski (2000) provides an analysis of a state merit-aid program, the Georgia HOPE Scholarship, which examines the effect of merit-based aid on enrollment decisions. Dynarski finds a significant increase of 7.
0 to 7.9 percentage points in college enrollment in the state of Georgia, using a difference-in-difference approach (Murnane & Willett, 2010). While she finds higher college enrollment rates in Georgia than in nearby states, the gaps in enrollment by race and income were also bigger, which suggested that the Georgia HOPE Scholarship primarily benefits middle- and upper-income white students.Retention is an important topic to evaluate inequalities in higher education because it affects many different minority groups in different ways.
Landry (2002) states that a significant factor as to why African American college students do not complete a college degree is because of financial aid. She goes on to say that learning to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of the financial aid system, especially when there is not a parent that has gone to college is incredibly difficult. Another minority group that Landry (2002) looked at was Native American Students. She states that Native American students deal with cultural differences that do not translate to classroom settings and a need to a spokesperson for all Native Americans even though there are varying cultures within the ethnic group are prominent barriers to Native American student retention. Hispanic students deal with different retention barriers than African American and Native American Students. Schmidt (2005) notes commonalities between Native American, African American, and Hispanic students’ lower retention rates than white students as “…
a lack of academic preparation, lack of a critical mass of students with similar ethnic characteristics, and financial need.” (p. 18) These issues affect the ability of minority and marginalized students to graduate from public institutions as well. When looking at a tool provided by The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is easy to see the disparities in graduation rates between white and minority students in public four-year universities in America. According to the website, the average four-year graduation rates of African American, Hispanic and Native American students at public four-year institutions are 17.4%, 23.8%, and 19.
4% respectively. In addition, their six-year graduation rates are 40.3%, 50.6%, and 39.4%. These national graduation rates are significantly lower than the average national four and six-year graduation rates of White students (36.
7% and 60.6%).Gerald and Haycock (2006) found the gaps in both access and success rate between low- and high-income students are indisputable in flagship universities. They compared the percent of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants at flagship universities with that of all colleges and found that flagship universities only served half of the low-income students who qualify for the flagship university (Gerald & Haycock, 2006).
African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans constituted only 10 percent of flagship graduates in 2005, compared to 25 percent of the high school graduate population nationwide. Therefore, according to Gerald and Haycock (2006), the country’s 50 flagship universities were ineffective in providing adequate access to underprivileged students and directing resources to student learning and success. At every step on the path to higher education, underrepresented students face barriers that other students do not, with competitive, research institutions perpetuating this inequality.