'Hard Times' and Higher Ed

August 18, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO -- "Hard Times" is the theme for this year's annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Many sessions -- including those on higher education -- focus on issues of income inequality. Sociologists presented numerous studies on various ways that policies and practices in American higher education hinder the success of low-income students. Several of the papers suggested that key inequities are not that hard to find, but don't necessarily attract attention.

Outsourcing to Parents

Laura Hamilton of the University of California at Merced discussed new research on the way non-elite universities have "outsourced to parents" key roles in higher education -- and how this approach disadvantages low-income students. Hamilton is the co-author of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press), which looked at an unnamed non-elite flagship university and the way the party culture created expenses for and complicated the education of low-income students. (Wealthier students also receive an education of lesser quality as a result of the party culture, but can compensate post-graduation in ways that aren't available to others, the book says.)

The work Hamilton discussed here looked at the parents of the students she tracked in Paying for the Party. What she found, she said, was that in two key areas -- academic advising and career counseling -- the large public university she examined (typical, she said, of many such institutions) was relying on parents, having cut spending on these areas. The parents of low-income students assume that these services are provided, and that they include individual attention, Hamilton said. But they don't.

Hamilton quoted one working-class mother: "Megan talks about her classes all the time…. The best ones to take or if I really need this one or should I do this. But then again I don’t know. So I would just say, 'Well, Megan … go to someone that is getting paid to do that. And there are people there getting paid to help you out so that is what I would do.' ” But when Hamilton asked the parent if Megan ever reported on having done so, the mother couldn't remember that having taken place.

In contrast, wealthier parents talked about how they figured out exactly which majors and courses a child should take to achieve either a career launch or professional school admission.

The same pattern is replicated when it comes to career counseling, with wealthier parents able to make connections, cover expenses for a child to move to a city to look for a job or take a non-paying internship, and so forth.

"This is a disturbing trend," Hamilton said of the way public universities have stopped supporting student services at adequate levels. "The more that universities shift to privatization and relying on parents, the more social class will matter" in the student experience.

Low-Income Students in Wealthy Schools

Joshua Klugman of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research presented data designed to test various theories about what happens when low-income students attend high schools with many wealthy students, and whether the low-income students are then more likely to go to highly selective colleges. The answer: It depends.

At many levels of high school wealth in a national longitudinal study, he found that the students of low socioeconomic status did not benefit from attending a high school with many wealthier students, and that it appeared that it was the wealthier students who gained the most from the resources available to them at high schools that serve many students of means.

But Klugman found a sudden shift in the top decile of high school wealth (as measured by the wealth of student bodies). For that decile of high schools only, students from the lowest socioeconomic groups were more like than other students at those schools to enroll in a very competitive college and to receive a bachelor's degree from a very competitive college.

Audience members speculated on various reasons why this could be the case. Some suggested that it takes the kinds of resources available only at the most well-supported high schools; others speculated that it is the peer effects of being educated with many wealthy students, whose parents insist on high ambitions. Still others suggested that colleges -- in admissions decisions -- view the wealthiest high schools as offering a "seal of approval" on students and so may be more willing to admit low-socioeconomic-status students from such high schools than from others.

Klugman, in an interview, noted a challenge in applying his findings to public policy. Because he defined high school wealth based on the wealth of students, moving more low-income students into the wealthiest high schools would cause them to no longer be top-decile-wealth high schools -- and that was the only decile of high school wealth that saw the positive impact on low-income students.

Questioning the Definition of 'Affordability'

Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin at Madison said that it was time to apply more critical analysis to the term "affordability" as it relates to federal, state and institutional policies that in theory make it possible for low-income student to attend college.

When people talk about affordability, she said, they almost always focus on financial aid policies to suggest that -- even as the cost of attending college goes up -- higher education remains affordable. A "sociological lens" on the term "affordability," she said, would push back on that approach.

She noted that the Pell Grant was once assumed to provide a meaningful share of the cost of attendance at a public institution, but that its spending power has shrunk. At the same time, she said, Republicans have increasingly talked about the Pell Grant as a program for poor people, and implied that some of them aren't worthy. She noted the fascination of the press with "Pell runners" who apply for grants with no intention of enrolling. While there are such people, they are not at all representative of Pell recipients, nor are they the cause of budget shortfalls in the program, she said.

Goldrick-Rab also urged more questioning of the idea that states can raise tuition rates as long as they increase financial aid, and that the federal government can promote access by promoting more understanding of the difference between "sticker price" (what colleges officially charge) and "net price" (what students and families pay after aid is provided from various sources).

This is just theory, Goldrick-Rab said, and ignores "the equity implications of sticker shock," in which many low-income students and parents simply look at the price of college and assume that they can't afford it.

Affordability needs to take into consideration what people will actually pay, and what they think they can afford, and that's much less than what politicians these days believe to be the case, she said.

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