"The Aristocracy of the American Higher Education System" by Tisha Harnlasiri

When American politician Horace Mann termed education “the great equalizer” in 1848, he demonstrated enormous faith in the idea that a person’s mobility in life was not contingent on his being born into wealth (Rhode). Society at large appears to agree with Mann: more than ever, high school students have been urged to apply to colleges and to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, a trend which points to the belief that receiving a higher education is the surest path to the “American Dream.” For low-income students, however, educational statistics reveal a more disheartening story behind the American higher education system: among the nation’s 193 most selective universities, wealthy students outnumber low-income students by 14 to 1 (Dreier). On the other hand, more than half of low-income students who receive aid through Federal Pell Grants attend public two- and four-year colleges, institutions which are historically known to be the least funded and most resource-deficient (Dreier). These statistics are indicative of a “zero-sum-game” within the system: as wealthy students continue to be admitted to selective universities for their competitive SAT/ACT scores and extracurriculars, low-SES (socioeconomic status) students are forced to poorly-funded colleges where they are falling behind in degree attainment and shouldering large student debts. Although the college education system has long been touted as a socioeconomic equalizer, it inherently exacerbates wealth inequality in the United States by catering to the privileged and affluent who can more easily invest in quality education. This increasing issue of classism begs us to reconsider the value of learning much beyond its so-called market worth, a step which is key to sustaining the feasibility of the “American Dream.”

 Recent political discussions concerning the higher education system reveal a great public faith in colleges and their roles as equalizers. Only four years ago in 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asserted that education still remains a great equalizer and that colleges are key to increasing social mobility (Rhode). Duncan is not alone is his convictions. Journalist David Leonhardt of the article, Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say, brands college as the “most reliable ticket to the middle class and beyond.” He draws readers to data pointing out that college graduates with four-year degrees earn on average 98% more per hour than those who only graduate with high school diplomas. On top of that, according to MIT economist David Artur whom Leonhardt references, the cost of a college degree in the long run is approximately -$500,000. In view of this, it appears that the financial benefits of a college degree is well-worth the debt or costs accrued paying for it. Leonhardt, therefore, perceives college as an economic equalizer for low-income students hoping to move up the socioeconomic ladder and to achieve the American Dream, or at least a part of it. He implies, like most others who praise the value of a college education do, that a person’s mobility in life does not rely on his being born into wealth. However, Leonhardt fails to address the disproportionate number of college graduates from high-income backgrounds versus those from low-income backgrounds. For example, in a study conducted by the Pell Institute, it was found that between 1970 and 2013, there was a 37% increase in the number of high-income students who earned a four-year bachelor’s degree by age 24 ((Indicators of Higher Education Equity). In contrast, of the students from the lowest-income bracket, only 9% attained degrees, a meager 3% increase from 1970 (Indicators of Higher Education Equity). As such, while Leonhardt pinpoints several statistics founded on recent college graduates, his focus on wage premiums and monetary value is not fully applicable to low-income individuals.       

    A Ticket to the American Dream      

           Authors Jonathan Cowan and Jim Kessler of the article, The Middle Class Gets Wise, also regard college as an equalizing force. Their argument primarily exalts the role of education in turning around the 2008 recession. Praising members of the middle class for enrolling into college and pursuing degrees, they highlight how in 2011, “there were 3.2 million more people enrolled in higher education than there were in 2006” and that in “the last six years, American higher education institutions conferred nearly 3.5 million more degrees...than they did over the six years before that.” The authors’ emphasis on enrollment and degree attainment serves to validate the importance of college in lowering the unemployment rate and enforcing financial stability for the middle class; this is a point that extends to the lower class as well. While Cowan and Kessler put a limelight on college acceptances and later address the need to tackle poor graduation rates in the U.S., their argument jumps right into a common pitfall concerning the education system—that all college degrees are created equal. However, a basic comparison of top-tiered and fourth-tiered universities reveal otherwise: from differences in endowment per student, faculty-to-student ratio, class size, and extracurricular and networking opportunities, top-tiered colleges have the greater capital to graduate students with far more enriching and attentive experiences than do resource-deficient colleges. However, low-SES students are more likely to enroll into these low-funded universities. Even if they do graduate they tend to leave the system with less social and cultural resources than do students who graduate from top-tier colleges. As a result, colleges may leave a low-SES student just as socioeconomically disadvantaged as they had been prior to entering. For this reason, it is imperative to address the many flaws within the higher education system that neglect students from low-income backgrounds but favor those from high-income ones.

The Admissions Process: Getting Into College

           To begin, the politics of the admission process among selective private and flagship state universities cater to the wealthy who can afford to invest in their child’s college-readiness. Among factors which are typically used to “score” a college application are extracurricular activities, test scores, academic performance, and letter of recommendations; these factors are believed to give insight into a student’s intellectual passions and self-character. However, a family’s economic resources are arguably better measures of the quality of learning and non-academic experiences a child has long before going into college. In fact, high-income parents are seven times more likely to invest in their children’s education than are low-income parents (Woolhouse). These families are reported to spend “as much as $9,000 annually on private tutoring, SAT prep courses, computers, and other activities, compared with about $1,300 for low-income families” (Woolhouse). And to add, 2014 test data collected by College Board—the distributor of SAT tests—found that students from low-income backgrounds obtained a median score of approximately 200 points less than students from high-income backgrounds. SAT testing reports from previous years have also found a similar trend (2014 College-Bound Seniors). Although these statistics do not necessarily imply direct causation, they strongly suggest a relationship between income and aptitude performance. Yet, institutional selectivity in the American higher education system fails to address this income gap as it increasingly values competitiveness in student statistics. Even prior to enrolling into or beginning college, low-SES student are severely disadvantaged by financial restrictions that prevent them from competing on a level academic playing field. To consider college a meritocratic process that values student effort would therefore be to ignore the influence of socioeconomic status on availability of student opportunities. Solving disparities in the quality of K-12 education would be key starting point in working to subvert the aristocracy of the higher education system.

          Moreover, a student’s admittance to college is also linked greatly to the decision making process of selecting colleges to apply to and even submitting the applications themselves. For wealthy students, especially those whose parents have previously attended college, the process of maneuvering around the rhetoric and accrual of college information—where to go, whether they can afford it, what the campus is like— is far more accessible. They not only possess the money to finance college tours, but they can also afford to hire professional college consultants and enroll their children in high schools with well-experienced guidance counselors. The same opportunities are not as easily afforded by low-income students and their parents. This barrier of college navigation is primarily dependent on a phenomenon known as “undermatching.” That is, high achieving low-SES students whose academic credentials fit what selective colleges are looking for, are failing to apply to resource-rich colleges that offer generous financial aid. These low-income students often have misimpressions about selective colleges, whether it be the price of tuition they will have to pay, what the culture of a university campus is like, and what it even means for a college to be a liberal arts institution (Hoxby 516-517). Due to this lack of college data, these kids often apply to low-funded, public universities whose net costs are far greater than that of some selective colleges. As such, quality guidance via high school counselors, tutors, or college-reach programs are crucial to advancing a low-SES child’s path to college. Even more so, greater access to college information will allow them to apply to schools that are well suited to their needs, wants, and academic preparedness. Altogether, the admissions process favors the wealthy who can better invest in and are more knowledgeable about the system of higher education. The belief that an education alone can boost one’s path to a better life — perhaps a house, a stable job, or the money to raise a family — is inherently flawed if an underprivileged student cannot enroll into college solely because he or she does not have access to valuable or required resources. 

Loans, Loans, Loans

          Because hundreds of low-income students are undermatched and attend colleges which fail to provide them with sufficient funding or resources, harmful student aid policies additionally play a large role in exacerbating wealth inequality in the higher education system. The issue of student debt, even for students in the middle class, comes as no surprise: in just the course of a decade from 2003 to 2013, student debt has quadrupled, topping one trillion dollars and exceeding auto and credit card debt combined (Friedman). Although low-income students do receive generous government aid and need-based scholarships compared to those from upper-socioeconomic tiers, the amount of aid they obtain does not necessarily guarantee college affordability. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, families in the bottom two income quintiles pay nearly 40 to 95 percent of their income at four-year public universities, even after scholarships and grants have been deducted from their net cost (Huelsman 15). This is compared to 21 to 24 percent of income for families in the top two income quintiles (Huelsman 15). Consider, for example, two low-income parents making a combined income of only $3,000 per month while paying for $1,100 of rent each month. One of their two children has enrolled into a public university with academic scholarships, however, the net cost still totals to $1,600 per semester. How can they afford to pay for their child’s college education considering that they must still pay rent in a timely manner, purchase basic needs, and account for emergency savings? The answer is that it would be very difficult to do so. The disparity in educational costs for families, relative to their income, demonstrates a barrier to college access that is partial to the wealthy who have the money to afford it. Low-SES students must more greatly rely on student loans and family income to finance college attendance. As a result, a school’s costly tuition price may strongly dissuade or intimidate low-income students from applying to colleges or from believing that the expenses are worth the advantages of a college degree.

          Low-SES students who do undertake student loans in order to attend college, risk difficulties in attaining a degree. In a 2007 study of such students in four-year universities, researcher Dongbin Kim found that low-income students shouldering high student loans during their first year of college were less likely to attain a degree than their wealthier counterparts. The data, supplemented by Kim’s statistical modeling, also predicted a negative relationship between low- to moderate-income students and degree attainment (86). That is, the greater the debt burden a student carries, the less of a chance he or she has of completing college and thereby, earning a degree. In contrast, high-income students who take on student loans during college have a higher probability of attaining a degree in four years (86). Kim’s study reveals a discrepancy between the socioeconomic mobility that college supposedly provides and the resulting lack of a degree at the end of the process. Distribution of financial aid in favor of student loans rather than subsidized grants hurt low-SES students who are already struggling financially. They, compared to their wealthier peers, may suffer from greater pressure or stress when it comes to financing their education because they may, for example, fear exacerbating their family’s monetary instability. It is for this reason that college access and enrollment alone are not enough to mitigate wealth inequality in the education system; tackling the issue of debt burden on the college experience is also just as crucial.  

          This issue of college affordability further raises the question, “What can colleges do to help students?” However, to answer that question we must first ask “What are colleges currently doing that do not help, but actually harm students?”. Trends in school scholarship and tuition aid policies are partial to high-achieving, high-income students who can afford to pay a greater portion of a school’s sticker price — that is, its tuition, room and board, school supplies, and etcetera. While many selective and flagship state universities can afford to help low-SES students, “they instead use their...resources to offer financial inducements to students with high SAT scores...and also...provide incentives to those who will pay nearly full tuition” (Mettler 31). Considering this, colleges have grown highly invested in the rankings game in order to attract wealthy, full-pay students who, unlike low-income families, will help boost institutional revenue. As a result, high-income students have assumed critical roles in the higher education system’s business schematics. While state universities have historically served low-income students and offered them need-based aid, these students are now being displaced by their wealthier peers who are valued simply because of their market worth. These student aid policies implemented by universities are harmfully pricing low-income students out of college and maintaining the aristocratic nature of the higher education system. 

The College Culture

          Wealth stratification in the higher education system, though often solely viewed through economic and political lens, is also exacerbated by another key aspect: the campus culture. A student’s social and cultural capital, termed as “resources”, is particularly crucial in determining whether or not a student acquires valuable opportunities throughout the course of his or her college experience. Whereas social capital consists of networking opportunities and social connections, cultural capital involves the upbringings, education, and qualifications which familiarize a student to cultural know-hows (Stuber 10). Both these forms of capital facilitate involvement in extracurricular activities, which researchers have found often to be of greater importance than academics in the hiring process (Struber 62-63). In a series of interviews conducted at Benton College, an anonymously-identified, liberal arts university, it was found that low-SES students were less inclined to participate in extracurricular events: most reported that they had either never previously participated in similar activities or were unfamiliar with the college’s cultural environment in their former educational experiences. Others expressed ambivalence towards the culture of resume-building on campus and more greatly valued academic achievement (Struber 69-81). Although Benton College fails to represent all university campuses in the U.S., it does significantly indicate the need to address how social and cultural capital, relative to income status, can lead to considerably different college pathways and perceptions. High-income students, compared to low-SES students, are likely to be more endowed with motivational influences and social connections prior to and during their college experiences. They may, therefore, be more inclined to participate in schoolwide voluntary activities such as Greek life, event programming, and student government, than low-income students who possess little socio-cultural capital.

          In addition, school involvement and access to resources among low-income students may be restricted by their financial budgets. One study found that compared to high-SES students, a majority of low-income and working class students from the bottom two income quintiles chose to live at home with their parents and/or undertook 20-hour work weeks during their first year to offset the costs of college (Bozick). As such, students who live off-campus rather than dorm in their college’s residence halls have less access to extracurricular organizations, media and technological resources, and office hours held by professors. The latter may especially bear great impact on a student’s academic success and degree attainment. Similarly, low-income students who work during college can afford less time to get involved in campus activities because it is often already so difficult to manage both work and academics. The potential struggle of involvement places these low-SES students behind their more affluent peers in the post-college hiring process, which is key to their socioeconomic mobility. As such, universities should seriously consider setting up outreach or mentoring programs to guide students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, throughout the stages of their college careers. It is important to point students to resources that may help foster a valuable and stable college experience. As a whole, the campus culture of the university system, whether in terms of access to activity or extracurricular, may inherently ostracize low-income students and enforce wealth inequality in higher education.

A Need for Education Reform

         The American higher education system altogether undermines the role of college as the “great equalizer”: from the politics behind the admissions process to the time and monetary resources required for extracurriculars in college, it is obvious that these factors are drawn out in favor of the wealthy and the privileged. As such, the system that supposedly promises socioeconomic mobility often actually leaves low-income and working class students further behind their wealthier peers. Considering this, it is crucial that we move away from the “business model” of the education system that so highly prizes the marketable value of a college degree. Colleges today tend to sell the idea of the American Dream, promising that with X degree, a student will receive Y jobs and Z opportunities which will yield the greatest return on investment. Yet, the belittlement of a college degree to its market worth dangerously threatens the intrinsic value of educational learning and the appreciation of human connections. Inspiring genuine knowledge and intellectual curiosity especially for underprivileged students is not simply pivotal to leveling the playing field in college. If we are to sustain the American Dream and strive for social justice, we must look beyond politics and price tags — because the value of learning is something that money truly cannot buy.  

Work Cited

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