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Today, though, the ladder is rickety. Some of the rungs are missing; others are splintered and weak. Too often people can’t gain even the first toehold. And if they do, they can easily lose their footing, leaving them saddled with student debt but no degree. For those from wealthy families who start near the ladder’s top, the ascent is surer, but for the many who must begin at the bottom, it can be tough to scramble up.
“The only thing that mitigates intergenerational poverty is higher education,” says Danette Howard, senior vice president at the Lumina Foundation, which supports expanded college access. “But you have to get it.”
The poorest Americans don’t. Less than 15 percent of students from the lowest socioeconomic bracket earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While college-graduation rates have soared over the past 50 years for middle- and upper-income Americans, for those with family incomes of $42,000 or less, they’ve barely budged.
How can this be? If in Horatio Alger stories poor kids made good through a combination of grit and elbow grease, hitting the books was supposed to be the pass to the middle class in the 21st century. Yet inequality in this country remains as entrenched as ever — a child born into poverty has less than a 10-percent chance of becoming an affluent adult.
If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life.
As with many things, there is no single explanation for higher education’s failed promise. It’s a story of choices made and paths not taken, of decisions by policy makers and the actions of colleges themselves. The result: Instead of acting as a leveler, higher education magnifies economic differences and reinforces them. The better off you are, the more likely you are to go to college. If you go to college, you are likely to be better off.
To understand how we got here, we need to look back to a time when the promise of mobility via a college degree became cemented in the American Dream. We’ll examine how that dream curdled, how colleges became more stratified, and how access to education went to those who could afford it. And we’ll ask what, if anything, higher education can do to reclaim the mantle of opportunity.
Poring over the vast amounts of economic and social-science data on the issue of mobility and identifying the structural issues that hamper it, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, to see the problem as insurmountable. But we live in a crucial moment. Without change, the disparities could only deepen — according to one estimate,two-thirds of new job openings go to people with at least some education beyond high school.
The higher-ed ladder to the middle class may be weak and wobbly now. In the years ahead, it could be completely broken.
How We Got Here
However, the idea came fully to the fore in the years following World War II. The GI Bill opened the doors of college to millions of returning veterans. It was the era of the modern public university, with states like California and New York building up multicampus systems that promised unprecedented access to high-quality education, just in time for the baby-boom generation.
In 1947, the President’s Commission on Higher Education, better known as the Truman Commission, said that sending more Americans to college should be a national priority. To achieve its recommendation to double collegegoing rates, it called on the federal government to create financial-assistance programs for needy students. “The democratic community cannot tolerate a society based upon education for the well-to-do alone,” the commissioners wrote in their final report. “If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life.”
It would take nearly two more decades for this goal to be passed into law. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College, where he had worked his way through by sweeping the floors. The measure promised need-based loans, grants, and work study as well as financial help to struggling colleges. No students would be denied a college education because they were poor, Johnson said.The law would “swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open — the door to education.”
Two out of three good jobs — defined by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce as those that pay a family-sustaining wage — require some education or training beyond high school.
The higher-ed law reflected the broader push in 1960s America to combat inequality across all aspects of American society — and a consensus that the government should offer a hand up. The same year Johnson signed the higher-ed bill, Medicare and Medicaid became law, providing health care to the poor and elderly. The recent Civil Rights Act banned discrimination based on race, religion, or sex. Head Start offered early-childhood education and nutrition to vulnerable preschoolers. Like many of these programs, the Higher Education Act sought to “open doors to opportunity,” says Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “That was very explicit.” (The institute has received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provided a grant to The Chronicle to produce a series of articles on social mobility, including this one. The foundation’s grant making in higher education has increased in recent years with a large focus on ways to get more Americans access to a college education.)
Later programs built on the goal of expanded access. The Pell Grant program, approved in 1972, provided federal grants directly to low-income students.
At the same time, changes were beginning to occur in the economy that would give greater urgency to broadening the pool of students who got to go to college. Technological advances and globalization were cutting off what had once been a second viable route to the middle class, via blue-collar manufacturing jobs. In the past, workers, mostly men, had been able to go from the high-school classroom straight to the factory floor. They earned good wages and could expect a job for life.
But automation and foreign competition were about to decimate manufacturing. Since 1980 the United States has lost 7.5 million manufacturing jobs, and the decline accelerated during the recession of the past decade.
Today the surest guarantee of economic security is a college degree. Two out of three good jobs — defined by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce as those that pay a family-sustaining wage — require some education or training beyond high school. More than half of good jobs, the center found, require a bachelor’s degree.
If improving collegegoing rates was once an aspirational goal, it now is a pressing imperative. For most Americans, earning a degree isn’t optional, it’s a necessity. “The need for education has been magnified by changes in the economy,” says Thomas G. Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “The world has changed, and now virtually the only path to the middle class runs through higher education.”
Instead, there’s been a shift at the federal, state, and even institutional level away from programs and policies that helped make college more affordable, especially for the neediest students.
Take the Pell Grant. When it was enacted, it covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public college. Now it covers barely 30 percent. It’s not that Congress hasn’t increased federal spending for the Pell Grant — it has. But tuition costs have risen faster.
A big reason for the Pell Grant’s diminished reach is that state spending on higher education has declined. During budget crises, lawmakers are often more willing to reduce spending on higher education, because, unlike many other government programs, colleges have an alternative source of revenue — tuition. Since the late 1980s, tuition increases have outpaced growth in family incomes. The burden of rising tuition can be especially onerous for low-income families. The average undergraduate from the bottom quintile of income must find a way to finance an amount equivalent to 157 percent of his or her family income to pay for college, the Institute for Higher Education Policy found, while it costs a wealthy family just 14 percent of its income to send a student to college.
The average undergraduate from the bottom quintile of income must find a way to finance an amount equivalent to 157 percent of his or her family income to pay for college, while it costs a wealthy family just 14 percent of its income to send a student to college.
Keith E. Whitfield, provost at Wayne State University, in Detroit, says the high price of college can deter low-income students from applying because they think it’s out of reach. “They see the sticker price, and they get discouraged,” he says. Along the way, even small financial setbacks can cause students to drop out. To combat that, Wayne State has begun offering small completion grants — $750 or $1,000 — to keep students on track.
Exacerbating the problem is that colleges have begun giving out more aid that rewards academic merit rather than trying to meet financial needs. Nationally, the average merit award given to individual students is about $1,500 larger than the average award based on need, according to the Department of Education.
“We’re opening the door to college to students for whom the door was already open,” says IHEP’s Cooper. “We’re just opening the door wider.”
But the move to transfer more of the costs of college to students and families also reflects a shift in how Americans think about college, and who should pay for it. If President Johnson saw educating young people as of collective benefit to American society, more recently higher education has come to be viewed increasingly as a private good, something that chiefly benefits the college graduate. If a college degree would vault student into the middle class, the thinking goes, shouldn’t they pay for it themselves?
Still, affordability is not the only culprit in sapping higher education’s capacity to act as an engine of mobility. There’s also the selectivity race.
College rankings, like the U.S. News & World Report’s annual listing of top colleges, include a number of measures that favor wealthier students, such as performance on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. How well students do on these tests is strongly correlated with family income — those from the top income bracket scored more than 130 points higher on all portions of the SAT than did their classmates in the bottom bracket. Financially needy students can’t afford expensive test prep courses. But their disadvantage very likely begins far earlier. Research shows that students who grow up in low-income households tend to receive less exposure to spoken language and vocabulary — a crucial part of the SAT — as young children.
U.S. News recently tweaked its ranking to give greater weight to the graduation rates of students who receive Pell Grants. Still, colleges have “powerful incentives” to admit higher-income students who help them perform well in the rankings, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Colleges have built rankings into their strategic plans; some presidents get bonuses tied to them.Universities don’t want to risk sliding in those standings in order to expand their socioeconomic diversity, he says. “Despite their protests, presidents do care about rankings. Trustees notice them.”
As a result, low-income students are a rarity at selective institutions. At Ivy League universities, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom half, according to Raj Chetty, a Harvard University economist who studies socioeconomic mobility. Put another way, students from the top 1 percent are 77 times likelier to go to an Ivy than someone from a family that makes less than $30,000 a year.
It’s not just elite private institutions that skew wealthy. Only 4 percent of high-school graduates from the lowest income bracket go on to the most highly competitive public and private colleges, including state flagships and public research universities. Prestigious American colleges have effectively become gated communities.
“It’s social reproduction,” says Wil Del Pilar, vice president of education policy and practice at the Education Trust, “not social mobility.”
Where students go matters because not only is there an income disparity among students, but there’s also a wealth gap among institutions themselves. The average public research university spends about 60 percent more per student than a community college does; a private research institution spends three times as much. And studies show that increases in spending lead to higher graduation rates. In other words, low-income students are funneled to the very types of institutions that are least well-positioned to help them succeed.
“We got rid of the tracking system in K-12, but it fully took hold in higher education,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “We’ve built a lot of dropout machines for less-advantaged kids.”
Start with the fact that low-income students are disproportionately likely to start at a community college. That means they’ll have to transfer to a four-year college if they want to get a bachelor’s degree. Yet just 14 percent of community-college students successfully transfer and earn a four-year degree within six years. For low-income students, the share that transfers and graduates is even lower — only 10 percent, according to a study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Students can frequently feel at sea, without clear guidance about whether what they are studying at community college will count toward a bachelor’s degree. Will the introductory statistics class they took meet the four-year college’s math requirement? Can they gain admission to the major of their choice as a transfer student?
Colleges could have done a better job of clearing the path for students from poor families. There are educational choices they have made that haven’t always served low-income students well.
There’s often not enough coordination between faculty members at the different institutions, as well as a lack of coherent, upfront advising with transfer in mind, the researchers found. As a result, students can invest time and money in wasted credits, says Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, which worked with the research center. “If you changed jobs and lost 42 percent of your retirement savings, would you be happy?” he says. “But somehow it’s acceptable that you lose 42 percent of your credits transferring?”
Another stumbling block is remedial education. Nearly two-thirds of students entering community colleges, and more than one-third of those starting at less-selective four-year institutions, lack the math or language skills to succeed in college-level classes. Typically the practice has been to enroll these students in one or more noncredit remedial courses to bring them up to speed. But the extra coursework puts students behind in earning their degree, and it’s easy for them to get discouraged.
Who can blame them? asks Danette Howard, of the Lumina Foundation. Low-income students are more likely to be placed in developmental courses, she notes. Sometimes they can spend more than a year before they are ready for regular college work. Rather than catching students up, remedial education can seem to be holding them back.
Some colleges are moving away from the remedial model, though doing so is not universally supported. The California State University system announced two years ago that it would end stand-alone remedial courses and instead put all students in regular math and English courses with extra tutoring and other supports to help them keep pace. So far, CSU has seen a substantial increase in the number of students passing credit-bearing classes who otherwise would have been assigned to remedial coursework.
Still, remedial education is a reminder that colleges have done a better job serving those students who have historically enrolled — wealthy, white — than the low-income or minority students, says Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity, which works to improve collegegoing in California. “I think colleges have to ask themselves, ‘Are we ready for these students?’”
One (very limited) reason for optimism: There have been strides in getting low-income students to enroll in college. In 1990 just a third of students from the lowest income bracket went to college after high school. By 2017 nearly half did. The collegegoing gulf between the wealthiest and poorest students, while still wide, has also narrowed, from 43 percentage points three decades ago to 30 percentage points.
No one is cheering such a massive disparity. But perhaps the gradual improvement in college participation, says Lumina’s Howard, suggests that the message about higher education’s value does resonate with low-income Americans.
Getting poor students in the door, however, doesn’t matter much if they don’t emerge with a degree — the increase in earnings for a worker who attended college but did not graduate is fairly modest, especially when compared with the huge wage premium for college graduates.
It can be done. Raj Chetty, of Harvard, and five other economists tracked millions of anonymous tax filings and tuition records to examine the economic outcomes for graduates of colleges around the country. Most institutions did little to contribute to social mobility, they found. Graduates of elite universities, for instance, do tend to make higher salaries, but since so few poor students attend those institutions, that does little to close equity gaps.
But a handful of colleges stand out. Institutions like California State University at Los Angeles and the University of Texas-Rio Grande enroll large shares of low-income students, and a significant number go on to become high-earning adults. At City College of New York, about 30 percent of students came from the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution; 12 percent of them reach the most-affluent income bracket.
The Road Ahead
The campus can be a daunting place for someone who is unfamiliar with it, and many low-income students, the first in their family to go to college, have no one to turn to for advice.
Much of what the program, which is known as ASAP, does is outside the classroom — it pays for transit passes, textbook vouchers, and tuition that financial aid doesn’t cover. Every student is assigned to a counselor who advises him or her through graduation, providing a rapid response if a student misses a couple of classes and intervening in ways both academic (getting a tutor to help with a tricky subject) and otherwise (contacting a food pantry if a student is going hungry). Participating colleges have nearly doubled their three-year graduation rates for students who started out in remedial classes. The model is being adopted beyond the CUNY system.
ASAP recognizes a critical challenge for low-income students: They often need help navigating through college. The campus can be a daunting place for someone who is unfamiliar with it, and many low-income students, the first in their family to go to college, have no one to turn to for advice.
Wraparound programs like ASAP can be costly. Over three years, CUNY spent about $16,300 more per ASAP student than it did on the rest of the student body. But administrators felt that the results were worth it.
Tiffany Beth Mfume, assistant vice president for student success and retention at Morgan State University, argues that colleges have to get serious about better serving low-income students, because they can’t afford not to. Shifting demographics mean that increasing numbers of potential students in the United States will be low-income, first-generation, or underrepresented minorities — or all three. If colleges can’t educate those students, they won’t be able to keep the lights on. “It’s not the most flowery, optimistic of reasons,” Mfume says, “but if you’re not going to be successful at enrolling, retaining, and graduating low-income students, you’re not going to be successful.”
Outside campuses, other developments may also drive change. The Varsity Blues admissions scandal, in which Hollywood actors and Silicon Valley CEOs bribed their children’s way into top colleges, sparked outrage. But it also brought new attention to the inequities in college admissions, says Robert Shireman, director of higher-education excellence and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “People said, ‘Yes, it’s terrible, but wait — aren’t rich people buying slots every day at colleges?’” Lawmakers in California have already passed several bills to tighten oversight of college admissions and make it more difficult for wealthy donors to influence admissions decisions.
Likewise, if the U.S. Supreme Court were to strike down or limit affirmative action in a case about Asian American students at Harvard University, colleges could look for alternative ways to diversify their student bodies, says Richard Kahlenberg, Shireman’s colleague at the Century Foundation. That could lead to more efforts to enroll students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, he says. On the campaign trail, presidential candidates, at least on the Democratic side, have emphasized college affordability as a pressing issue, although their proposals for free college don’t always target the neediest students.
But just as the factors that have kept inequality entrenched in higher education are manifold and complicated, there is not just one single intervention that is likely to dislodge the barriers that low-income Americans face in graduating from college. Experts have talked about a variety of ideas — campus-based program changes, tying colleges’ tax-exempt status to the share of low-income students they enroll, aligning more closely the K-12 and higher education systems. The answer is yes, and — and more and more and more.
Colleges may be an imperfect vehicle for ending inequality, a flawed agent of social mobility, a shaky ladder to the middle class. But it’s the one we’ve got. If we — colleges, elected officials, the public as a whole — become more serious about the need for equal access to opportunity, the country could get closer to fulfilling the promise it made decades ago.
This story is part of a series, Broken Ladder, examining the role of higher education in social mobility. It was made possible by a grant of $149,994 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has no role in our editorial decision-making.
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Correction (Feb. 13, 2020, 3:15 p.m.): The original version of the chart “The Difficulty of Moving Up” incorrectly described what the data show. The percentages indicate the share of all students at the groups of colleges who were both from the lowest socioeconomic group and who made it into the top 20 percent of income earners, not the share of students from the lowest socioeconomic group who made it into the top 20 percent of income earners. The chart has been corrected.