Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"The Growing College Gap"

            At first glance, Tamara Draut’s article seems to state a fact that most individuals already know: it’s hard to get into college. Looking further into her claim, Draut reveals the struggles that low-income high school students applying to a four-year college or university face. Specifically, the article talks about enrollment gaps between class and race due to financial issues and the increase of high school students applying to colleges and universities across the nation.

            Draut begins her article by explaining the different outcomes that occur from specific levels of education. First, she shows the lifetime economic gains that different degrees, ranging from high school to PhD, will make. Second, she explains the different “qualities of life” that each education level will face. Specifically, Draut explains that those who cannot get into a higher education program will not have the opportunity to have a higher paying job.

            In order to understand the claims that Draut makes in her article, it is imperative that one knows about the history of college financial aid within the United States. To do this, Draut explains the origins of financial aid, starting with the GI Bill. The GI Bill was intended to provide war veterans with the opportunity to gain educational/social skills once they returned back to the U.S. and were acclimated with what “civilian life”. Next, there was the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which was based solely around the idea that college education should be accessible to any U.S. citizen. In a way, this was the precursor to today’s loan and scholarship system. The last specific grant system that Draut talks about are Pell Grants, which provide low-income students with aid in order to close the socioeconomic achievement gap facing the United States. Today, most federal aid is based off of merit in addition to financial need. Usually, these awards go to students who don’t necessarily need the aid in order to go to college. Students who come from a low-income household are less likely to receive these scholarships. This is a problem because the U.S. is shifting away from need-based aid and providing funding for merit. Thus, the financial aid system within the U.S. is starting to thin out- a scary idea considering tuition costs continue to rise. Draut provides a few different statistics about the cost of college:

  1.           In 2003, the cost of going to a state school increased by 24%. Federal aid for students, however, has not increased at the same rating, which means that students who qualify for financial-aid will receive a reduced amount.
  2.          Pell Grants used to cover 72% of college costs. Today, they only pay for 34%.


The later portion of Draut’s article talks about the issues that stem from the nation’s lack of financial aid. Since the loan/grant system has deteriorated, the social gap between Caucasian and “ethnic” students has increased. Over 570,000 students could not go to a public university solely because of financial reasons. This has caused the enrollment in community colleges to increase rapidly- 44% of all undergraduates go to a community college. Also, 40% of young adults surveyed said that they either had to delay their education or go to a less expensive school because of financial issues/student loans. There are more low-income students at community colleges than high-income students. While some community college students say that their enrollment is temporary and that they will eventually transfer to a state college or university, 60% of these students don’t actually follow through and will continue in community college. Also, it is more likely for an individual that is enrolled in a community college to not finish his or her degree when compared to a student that goes to a state college or university- this is due to the fact that most community college students have to hold one or more jobs to pay for necessities and tuition. Low-income students who attend a four-year college are more likely to drop out in comparison to their high-income peers. 40% of students from the highest socioeconomic quartile will graduate while only 6% from the lowest quartile will graduate. The struggle to get into and maintain an education at a four-year college or university causes a social-rift among socioeconomic classes instead of solely on race/ethnicity. If low-income students are able to make it through a four-year program at one of the nation’s most prestigious schools, they are more likely, according to statistical data, to have a higher wage premium in comparison to high-income students that graduate from the same academic institution.

In addition to the cost of college increasing, competition to get into an elite school has gone up significantly in the past few years. Often, high-income students fear that they won’t be able to get into a top-tier school and that their lives will suffer from this loss. These students believe that their peers will look at them with disgrace and not view them as a “winner”. Students that strive to get into an elite school will shell out a lot of money for college preparatory courses and tutoring services in order to gain a better chance of enrollment. These services can, according to Draut, range from $1,500 - $3,000. Also, students may pay for consultants that help create portfolios of information about the student and help highlight his or her qualities while minimizing any weak points. Also, these councilors help guide students through the entire process of writing a college admissions essay. High-cost services are out of the question for low-income students. Only 6% of all high school students use these services, leaving the other 94% at a disadvantage. Low income students, according to Draut, have little to no guidance through their high schools because counselors are have an average caseload of 500 students.

Businesses are increasing the education standards of their potential employees, leaving students with a community-college degree at a large disadvantage over other students. Draut explains that the bachelor degree is slowly become obsolete for managerial and higher level positions at firms across the nation. Instead, master’s degrees are becoming the standard of top-tier jobs in many different industries, such as social work, psychology, teaching, and even in the library field. One reason that companies are increasing their standards is that a higher level of education across all employees will result in a better occupational status in comparison to competing firms within the same occupation. Most master’s degrees are used in the professional field and not for theoretical/philosophical fields. Demand has drastically increased for graduate level degrees. Draut provides a statistic that shows that the amount of students earning graduate degrees increase 58% between 1986 and 1999. Individuals who are in debt are likely to not gain a graduate degree because of the cost and time. This means that individuals who financially struggled to get a bachelors degree are still behind students who came from financially stable families. Draut’s final claim within her article is that, in the future, the majority of America’s population will be undereducated and consist primarily of African Americans and Latinos.

Questions to think about:

Do students who complete a two-year program at a community college have a disadvantage in terms of adapting to/learning about new forms of computer-based technology in comparison to those who attend a four-year program at a state college or university?

Are there any specific cultural phenomenon, such religious philosophies or value systems, that promote the socioeconomic rift within the U.S. college education system?

Does computer technology create a barrier for low-income students in regards to gaining information about/applying to college? 

As colleges move towards online-based applications, how will low-income individuals who do not own a home computer adapt ?


  1. I admit to being a little surprised that Draut raised the issue of students having to go to second-choice colleges because of cost; I always thought of that as part of the fundamental nature of the world, I suppose. And no, that probably isn't how the world ought to work, but I'd never thought of it in that way before.

    The point about technology being a barrier to learning about colleges and funding opportunities is a good one; even in my own very small high school, my guidance counselor had never even heard of the colleges I wanted to apply to. Now, technology was only one aspect of my being able to find and learn about those schools, but I don't know how I would have learned about them if not for the Internet.

  2. As I was reading this article, I realized that I was assuming that those who attend college, either community or 4 year institutions, are going to be (or become) more tech-savvy than those who don't. That's not always true. Some of the most tech-savvy folks I know have either not completed college or haven't gone yet. I'm sure in general, those who attend college have more tech and digital experience than those that don't, but there are always exceptions to those statistics. I'm about to complete my second master's degree, but my cousin who dropped out of college 20 years ago to become a computer techie and is now working for Stanford Univ. Library is much more knowledgeable and experienced in things digital than I.

  3. I also thought about how the 4-year degree seems to becoming less useful in some ways, especially bachelor's degrees in the humanities. I know a lot of people that have graduated from a four-year university, but they are still working at jobs that they could have had before going to college. I think some people see this happening and they are discouraged from going applying to college because they don't think it will really help, they just see the debt that will accumulate.

  4. But the possible flip side of a less-useful 4-year liberal arts degree is the way it has become a de facto requirement for jobs that in no way require college skills - administrative assistants, sales positions, etc. So as a 4-year degree becomes less of a ticket to career success, it also becomes a more crucial hurdle to achieving life in the middle-class.

  5. I was thinking the same thing. When I graduated high school, I remember thinking it wasn't a big deal because it was just another step toward college. Getting a 4-year degree is kinda the same thing now, just a stepping stone or hurdle to something more. I think the "less useful 4-year liberal arts degree" is a good point, something that the article didn't really go into. I think it could be argued that part of the problem could be the number of college graduates flooding the market every year. If I were an employer and I could demand that my admin assistant/sales rep have at least a 4-year degree and still fill it easily, I would.

  6. One of things I hadn't really considered before was the likely hood of someone FINISHING a degree, or another goal (like transferring from a community or tech school to a bachelor program) based on their socioeconomic situation/background. It makes complete sense though.

    I guess I also hadn't realized how much our financial aid system was in decline. It makes me sad to see things reverse course instead of continue to get better.

  7. It's shocking that community colleges are allowed to continue with the status quo despite their poor track record. Only 40% of community college students students who intend to transfer to universities do so, and only 1 in five who intend to gain an associate's degree do so. Wow.

    I think that before we overhaul the entire post-secondary education system, we would do ourselves a big favor by setting higher benchmarks for achievement at community colleges. Clearly the need/demand for community college is prevalent if they constitute almost half of all post-secondary students. And with the majority of their students coming from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, our community colleges represent (in theory at least) some hope of equal opportunity.

    It's clear we need some kind of targeted improvement, making sure that those who enroll in community college (whether it's to transfer to a four-year school or get an associate's degree) are able to achieve their goals. But I'm not really sensing any great movement to improve upon the current system.

  8. It seems to all come back to cost - even for those attending community colleges. And the cost of attending college is obviously much more than simply tuition; other costs such as opportunity cost, wage loss, etc. are part of the sacrifice one is expected to make. Draut cites the burden of working full-time and attending school as one of the main (possible) reasons that students don't reach their goals.

  9. Perhaps one way to address this -- although, ironically, it's still subject to the same economic and technological gaps that we've been discussing all along -- is the advent of more distance education options. I know several people who are taking advantage of "anywhere, anytime" classes (whether all online or with minimal residency) that place much less burden on students in terms of wage loss, etc.

    Unfortunately, the issue of cost is still a pretty big hurdle, and some of these programs are actually more expensive or use out-of-state tuition formulas. However, some brick-and-mortar programs (University of Illinois-Springfield and University of Wyoming, to name a few) offer in-state tuition for students who do not plan to complete any of their bachelor's degree work on campus.

  10. The question to me, at the end of the day, is whether we, as Americans, believe as a culture and a nation in college access for all - whatever that may mean. Do we believe that as a tenet in our nation or do we not? It frankly may be that that is not an agreed-upon notion (if the last 30 years are any indication). If that is the case, we ought to start getting real about ceasing the large-scale hallucination that a four-year college degree can be a reality for anyone who wants one.

    If we do believe, however, that this ought to be, the federal government needs to free up funding - GRANT MONEY, expressly - to assist students in attaining their higher educational goals. We have already created an educated class of paupers through student loan indebtedness. Could providing access to higher education - which so much of the reading suggests is the only real hope for social class mobility in this country - be the ticket to true economic stimulus, particularly in a society in which economic development comes more and more from the innovation and discovery sector?

  11. I think a number of community colleges and technical schools have agreements with four year institutions in order to facilitate students who wish to finish their degree at a four year institution. MATC actually has a number of "2 + 2" options (2 years at MATC, and students can then transfer to say Edgewood College or the Milwaukee School of Engineering in order to complete the final two years). UW-Madison also has three separate options for MATC students who wish to transfer after getting a number of credits out of the way. My friend who had tried college a number of times and never finished was able to get his gen eds out of the way at MATC and transfer to UW-Madison, his dream school, even though his high school GPA prohibited him from applying right after high school. Here are the links:

    Even with these sorts of agreements, it does seem disheartening that their don't seem to be higher graduation rates. Though I pretty sure most community colleges are aware and working on programs to help students graduate in less time (at the community college I worked did).

  12. Draut wrote an interesting chapter however, I wish she would have included Asian Americans into the discussion. While Asian Americans, on the whole, have high college attendance rates it is not uniform across all communities. For example Asians Americans of Southeast Asian background (Vietnam, Loas, Cambodia, and Hmong,) have education rates not dissimilar to other communities of color.

    For further reading the following paper was prepared for the U.S. Congress in 2003:
    Southeast Asian Americans and Higher Education: