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A new report points to significant and ongoing disparities in which students attend underresourced colleges versus wealthier, more selective universities. The report also identifies stubborn inequities in degree completion in the United States across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines and widening gaps in higher education attainment between states.

“The system is becoming more and more stratified by socioeconomic status,” said Margaret Cahalan, co-author of the report and director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, which researches the academic outcomes of low-income, first-generation and disabled college students, and advocates for improved educational opportunities for them.

The institute's annual trend report, "Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States," explores a wide swath of questions about higher education equity, from what types of colleges and universities students attend based on their age, racial background and economic status to how the United States compares to other countries in terms of higher education attainment rates. The report was released Wednesday by the Pell Institute, which is supported by the Council for Opportunity in Education, which is focused on increasing college access, and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

The data show a divided higher education system for adult learners, low-income students and students of color, who are concentrated in colleges and universities that spend less per student than better-resourced institutions.

About 40 percent of students who are financing their own education without parental help are enrolled in community colleges, according to 2016 data cited in the report. More than 70 percent of adult learners without dependents, and 80 percent of adult learners with dependents, were in open or nonselective two-year or four-year institutions.

Cahalan said while it isn't a bad thing that students take the more affordable opportunities public two-year institutions offer, the institutions may spend roughly $14,945 per student annually, compared to highly selective universities, which spend about $52,129 per student.

The disparities for adult students don’t end there. The report notes that, among adult learners who sought degrees, 49 percent were no longer enrolled or had not graduated six years later. About 60 percent of older college students with dependents, and 41 percent without dependents, receive federal Pell Grants, the report said.

Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, noted that because adult learners have a particularly diverse set of needs and responsibilities, looking at different types of adult learners, with and without dependents, is important for understanding how to support them.

“There are so many things about older students that, if we knew about them, we would address,” she said. “We’d figure out how to block their schedules, we’d figure out how to make sure they had backup transportation. It’s so much easier to talk about traditional-age students, even traditional-age, low-income students and students from underrepresented backgrounds.”

Pell Grant recipients also frequently attend open-access institutions compared to more selective institutions. In fact, the report found the more selective the university, the lower the percentage of Pell Grant recipients in the student body.

The report found racial disparities as well. White high school graduates were at least three times more likely to attend a selective four-year institution compared to Black high school graduates. The student loan debt gap between Black and white borrowers has increased. Black borrowers had $28,107 more in debt on average than their white counterparts in 2019, with Black graduates borrowing about $62,824 and white graduates borrowing $34,717 on average.

Student loans have become “overwhelmingly problematic, especially for the lowest income and for racial and ethnic minorities, for Black borrowers specifically,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust, an education policy research organization. “If we’re going to do something about trying to tackle the racial wealth gap, we really need to look at student debt cancellation and giving folks, especially folks with high levels of student debt, some relief.”

He said the report showed progress over all in higher education attainment in the United States but persistent and “disheartening” gaps, which demonstrate a need for increasing the Pell Grant and pushing forward a free college option such as that proposed by President Biden as part of his American Families Plan.

Cahalan said the trends in the report feel “normal” to her and have been consistent with past reports but that the lack of significant change over the years is “startling” in and of itself.

“What strikes me as I’m doing these statistics, it’s easy to get numb to them because they don’t really change very much … Just that we accept that as the system, this is the way the system is set up -- and it functions on some level -- but I think for me, that’s the biggest issue, that we accept it.”

Terry Vaughan III, associate director of the Pell Institute, said if these disparities are allowed to persist, it will undermine long-held belief in the American education system.

“If we normalize stratification, it really flies in the face of American ideas … such as the idea of meritocracy, the idea of economic mobility,” he said. “If you start to normalize the trend … we’re not just talking about individuals’ lives, which is important in itself. We’re talking about the structure and the idea of what is America.”

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