'Running in Place'

August 11, 2011

Examining what causes stratification in higher education over time, a new study arrives at a grim outlook for socioeconomic equity by debunking two myths: that, unlike their wealthier peers, most low-income students don’t know how to prepare for college and aren’t making strides to improve their academic credentials; and that those who do prepare still don’t apply to the best institutions they could get into.

Even though low-income students are becoming more qualified, boosting their grades and SAT scores, and even though more of them are applying to the selective institutions they’re capable of attending, wealthy students do all that, too -- and they’ve been doing it at a faster pace.

Guess who comes out ahead?

Despite public policy and institutional efforts such as need-blind financial aid and no-loan policies designed to attract and enroll more low-income students, such students are still more likely to wind up at a community college or noncompetitive four-year institution than at an elite university, whether a member of the Ivy League or a state flagship.

The study, “Running in Place: Low-Income Students and the Dynamics of Higher Education Stratification,” will be published next month in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, but an abstract is already available on the journal’s website.

“I think [selective colleges] very much want to bring in students who are low-income, for the most part,” said Michael N. Bastedo, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of higher education at the University of Michigan. “The problem is, over time, the distance between academic credentials for wealthy students and low-income students is getting longer and longer…. They’re no longer seen as competitive, and that’s despite the fact that low-income students are rising in their own academic achievement.”

That finding itself isn’t particularly surprising to Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin. But seeing the same outcomes established over time -- the study looked at four cohorts, from 1972 to 2004 -- is yet another indication that, regardless of how many billions of dollars are devoted to closing this gap, there’s been little change.

“Sociology completely predicts this. The powerful will always find ways to preserve power, and whenever any given thing that the powerful have the other people get access to, they’ll find some way to get a handle on the next level,” Goldrick-Rab said. “The Race to the Top is at war with the equity agenda. The effort to be the best and brightest in the world, to be the most elite in the world, is naturally conflicting with the efforts of those who would like to see people be more equal.”

And, as the report says, it’s not just the students who are competing to be the best -- it’s the colleges, too. The benefits of enrolling a high-achieving student body -- more prestige, higher rankings in U.S. News & World Report, better job placement and more generous alumni, to name a few -- have just been too tempting for institutions to pass up, the authors say.

“The problem is that institutions are partly responding to what the public is telling them they want,” Goldrick-Rab said. “So long as our colleges and universities continue in this never-ending Race to the Top, that’s going to perpetuate the inequity among students almost no matter what we do to try to bring students along.”

One idea that has gained traction in recent years is that low-income students aren’t getting into selective institutions simply because they’re not applying to them, for fear of not succeeding (that's an irrational fear, according to high-profile research that found those students are actually more likely to succeed at selective colleges). As a result, states this theory, they ultimately are “undermatched” -- they enroll in less-selective colleges for which they’re overqualified.

But in their research, Bastedo and Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, found that even if all students applied for their “perfect match,” it would do virtually nothing to address stratification. That is, even though these students may be qualified to attend a selective college, most of the spots will go to wealthier students who managed to take comparatively more Advanced Placement and honors courses.

“They’re kind of falling behind every step of the way, and I think it’s somewhat demoralizing. They’re trying to accomplish what they need to accomplish. They seem to have the message that they need to take harder courses in high school,” Bastedo said. “Even though they’re very successful in their own environments, they’re still unlikely to be admitted to the most highly selective colleges in the country.”

If more institutions were to make the SATs optional for admission, as a handful of colleges, most recently Bryant University, have done this year alone, that would be a good start to improving equity, the report says. Low-income students are known to test less well on the SATs, but that’s not a predictor of a student’s achievement or capabilities beyond the first year in college, Bastedo said; alternatively, rather than dropping the test completely, admissions counselors could simply consider the score within the context in which it was taken.

“A score that’s less than perfect may be an excellent score for a student from that type of high school or that type of family,” Bastedo said. “And that student may be very successful if he were to enroll in that college.”

But, Bastedo said, college admissions won't change until college presidents -- and officials below them on the institutional ladder -- endorse a new approach.

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