How College Divides Us

by Tracy R. Walsh

Paul Tough observes that an American student’s likelihood of graduating from college “seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor – how much money his or her parents make”:

To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree. When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability. Rich kids do better on the SAT, so of course they do better in college. But ability turns out to be a relatively minor factor behind this divide. If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores.

Suzanne Mettler, author of Degrees of Inequality: How Higher Education Politics Sabotaged the American Dream, argues that current higher education policy only exacerbates the problem:

[A]t the federal level, we’re spending more than ever on student aid. But we also see that a lot of our new forms of spending help families in which the kids would be going to college anyway. Take the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a part of the tax code, which is a big piece of education policy. That tax credit actually goes mostly to families who are just below the income cap of $180,000 in household income. So that’s an extra perk for those families for sure, but it’s not going to expand who goes to college.

At the same time, [higher education] costs have grown dramatically over time, and the funds and programs that still exist don’t go as far as they once did. The purchasing power of Pell grants has dropped dramatically. In the 1970s when they were created, they covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of tuition and room and board for an average public, four-year university. Today they cover just over 30 percent.

She also raises concerns about for-profit schools:

[W]e’re now spending one quarter of federal student aid dollars on for-profit colleges (though only one in 10 students attend these schools). And these schools have a very poor record in serving students. And they serve predominantly low-income students. These are exactly the people we’d like to see succeeding in getting a college degree. Yet the graduation rates are 22 percent on average in these schools. Nearly all students who attend borrow large amounts in student loans and if they start and don’t finish, which is endemic in these schools, or they get a degree that’s not respected by employers and they can’t get a job, those students actually end up worse than if they never went to college in the first place.