With a lingering recession sending Americans (back) to college in record numbers , and an administration determined to improve  the country's record on degree attainment, higher education, more than ever, has plenty of public attention. But a new book argues that higher education in the United States is falling ever more short on a variety of fronts -- particularly when it comes to those students who, theoretically, should stand to gain the most from it.
In Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality: Higher Education in America  (Ashgate), author Gary Berg uses both quantitative data and information gleaned from personal interviews with students and professors to show how students from poor families are shortchanged at every stage of their postsecondary education, from admissions practices that discriminate against them, to the numerous obstacles they face getting through college, to the lesser benefits they reap after graduation. There is a great deal to be done on each of these fronts, Berg argues, if higher education is ever to live up to its promise -- to disadvantaged students, and to society at large.
Berg, who is dean of extended education at California State University Channel Islands, talked to Inside Higher Ed via e-mail about the themes and implications of his book.
Q: You write that "political changes in the past three decades ... have led to increasingly unfavorable policies for students from poor families." What are these changes, and what have been their effects?
A: One of the major themes of my book is the evolving public attitude regarding the function of college as a vehicle for social mobility. While students still do talk of college as a route to better living and working conditions, many also speak about it as a place that is not appropriate for everyone and as having limited financial benefit. Furthermore, there is a sense that students have different college experiences, especially those from economically disadvantaged families.
In terms of public policy, this has led to a hardened attitude towards the funding of higher education and financial aid policies. Starting with President Reagan, funding for public higher education in America was significantly shifted towards a reliance on loans. The argument was made that investment in college aid had been excessive. George H.W. Bush further cut federal grants to low-income students during his period in office. In the Clinton years, the New Democrats took the centrist strategy of targeted tax relief for middle-class families with children attending college. While at the state level funding has been up and down, the general pattern of flat funding for higher education has been continued up to the present.
Loans are often not attractive to economically disadvantaged students because of practical and cultural hesitations to taking on loan debt. The numbers indicate that low-income students tend to take out loans less often and for lower amounts than middle and upper-class students. One remarkable point to emphasize is that during this transition at the end of the 20th century to a reliance on loans, middle- and upper-class students greatly increased their use of financial aid, while at the same time the percentage of loans among low-income students remained relatively level.
Q: You write that "some institutions, especial[ly] for-profits, opt out of the [rankings/prestige] competition and instead focus on meeting student needs directly." Do you see the burgeoning popularity of for-profits as generally a good thing for low-income students?
A: My research on for-profit and nontraditional universities, which was published five years ago in Lessons from the Edge , prompted me to look more closely at the experience of students from low-income families. Although the for-profit sector covers a diverse group of institutions, in general it disproportionately serves first-generation and lower-income students. Some point to this fact with alarm, as one sees in the current federal legislative discussions considering stronger controls, while the for-profits claim they are filling a gap in service that neither public nor independent institutions are sufficiently meeting. Regardless of how one interprets the work of for-profit institutions, the higher education community needs to ask what could be done to better serve students from low-income families so that these students have alternatives.
The public universities with their access missions have a special responsibility to serve students from low-income families, and can gain from observing the for-profits. Many of the for-profits pay special attention to providing clear pathways for first-generation college students both in terms of psychological self-esteem issues and the practical aspects of attending college while working and raising families. That said, one needs to look critically at the practical impact of a college degree (from any institution) on students from low-income families because it clearly varies depending on the institution attended, major, and other factors such as access to post-graduation social networks. Additionally, for-profit colleges vary greatly among themselves with one of the biggest differentiators being regional accreditation. Over all, for-profit institutions are painfully aware of the fact that traditional universities have an enormous competitive advantage in academic reputation and understand that they have to work hard to recruit and keep students. I think in the long run those from the for-profit sector that are good competitors, both ethical and effective, will benefit all.
Q: One of your findings is that "the dependence on text-based education hurts low-income students." Can this dependence be changed? Should it be -- and in what ways?
A: Economically disadvantaged students face challenges with needing to learn how to read and write at the college level. Many of the students I interviewed for my book commented on their basic challenge in understanding and using college textbooks. Typically writing skills are where students from low-income families have the most trouble academically. Learning to write well and read critically with comprehension is a key to academic success. Once students fall behind with writing skills in K-12 and in college, it is difficult to catch up.
However, there is a larger challenge for many students from low-income families in terms of lacking the background to understand sufficiently what they are reading. Faculty I interviewed for my book [who are] working with low-income students spoke about the struggle to find a frame of reference and context for teaching various subjects that are common knowledge to more affluent students. This lack directly impacts the students in the classroom because of a limited framework for learning new things, what might be called “worldliness” or “cultural capital” in academic terms. All college students need to write well, but the particular challenges for children from low-income families need to be fully appreciated and supported in university preparatory and bridge programs.
Q: Private universities (with the exception of elites), you note, "serve a higher percentage of students from low-income families" than do public universities. How did this come about, and what should be done about it?
A: Independent institutions comparatively serve students from low-income families to a surprisingly large degree. This trend came about by a combination of forces on the public universities, including limited funding and altered admissions practices at both the prestigious public universities and at second- and third-tier privates. Contrary to common perceptions, private universities, except for the most selective colleges, have a larger percentage of lower-income applicants than public institutions. This fact is an indicator of how independent universities in some ways are filling gaps in providing access to lower-income students that the public universities fail to meet.
One of the strengths often pointed to in American higher education is its diversity of institutional types from community colleges, HBCU's, regional comprehensives, and research institutions. In this light, the fact that independent universities are meeting the varied needs of students from low-income families is a good thing. However, as someone who works in public higher education committed to historical access objectives, I cannot help but wonder if independents and for-profits serving a large percentage of students from low-income families aren’t a result of our public institutional limitations and failures.
Q: What are some key ways that individual institutions can improve their enrollment and retention of low-income students?
A: Universities need to begin by appreciating the particular challenges economically disadvantaged students face. One reality is that often low-income students cannot afford to stop working to go to college. The cost of a college education, especially for a young person with dependent family members, is not only tuition and books, but also foregone wages. Although colleges have adapted somewhat to students who work, they are still often extremely resistant to meeting the demands of this group.
In addition to changing the format of education to accommodate working students, universities need to pay attention to the practical and emotional barriers to college attendance low-income students face. First-generation college students often also confront a greater adjustment problem in college. I found in my study adjustment issues when attending college fell into three main categories or domains of experience: personal, family and structural. The individual or personal level was filled with stories of students going through identity formation transitions. In many ways this first domain is less controllable and is a place where social realities become apparent. The family sphere gets us into the cultural issues which are in many ways the most powerful influence on the experience of low-income college students. Finally, the larger unequal socio-political environment provides a context for the family and personal student experiences. I was surprised by the tension and conflict I heard expressed from students in interviews about their parents. Those especially talented students who make it to college often suffer from extraordinary pressure to succeed because in a concrete way the fate of their families rests with them.
Q: What legislative strategies -- at the local, state and/or federal levels -- should be considered in order to increase the enrollment and retention of low-income students?
A: Changes to the funding of higher education and the way we regard institutions serving low-income students are central to a public policy agenda. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that the funding system for public higher education in America isn’t sufficient. On the international level, the United States’ lower comparative tax rate means that public education is less supported than most comparable nations. In this way, there is a lessened effect of redistribution of wealth and the encouragement of social mobility through public college opportunities for the poor in America. If public funding doesn’t increase, then we must have more flexibility in how public institutions can operate, perhaps borrowing methods from the independents while trying to maintain core mission priorities. In addition, it is increasingly expected that universities redouble efforts to find ways to operate more efficiently.
We undervalue those institutions that often facilitate the greatest change in students. Let’s identify and reward institutions that serve students from low-income families. The competition by universities to climb over each other in the U.S. News & Report rankings has had a negative impact on low-income students because the quality measures work against them. Why not factor into the rankings the percentage of students from low-income families served rather than admissions selectivity and size of the endowment? I agree with others who have pointed out that ranking variables such as alumni giving rate, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rate, and financial resources undervalue institutions focused on serving the broad public.
Q: You cite one scholar  who, in your words, "argues that increased public education does not always lead to better economies," and that "countries which have concentrated most on elevating the education levels of their population have grown more slowly... the result too often is over-educated employees and ineffective economies." Would you agree with that assessment?
A: First, on one level I don’t think anyone can be “overeducated.” Society as a whole benefits enormously from having educated citizens, although this can’t always be directly measured in economic terms. The point of view expressed in this citation is consistent with what I find to be a new maturity in the perception of higher education, that Americans no longer hold a singularly idealistic vision of college. One of the clear lessons coming from the overall picture that emerges out of my research is that the larger social and political context for low-income students is very weighty and complex. Vast inequality and poverty in America is the environment within which universities operate. One would be naïve to think that any effort by higher education alone could overcome poverty and injustice, and thus more directly impact the lives of low-income students. I don’t think President Obama’s call for increased participation in postsecondary education is misguided, but it is weighed down by a larger context.
Official national poverty rates reveal that today’s children are poorer than they have been in the past and that the distressing circumstances are worse in America than in many other Western developed countries. In fact, more than 20 percent of children live in poor families; 40 percent of ethnic minority families fall into this category. College and the larger educational system with its testing, grading, selecting and sorting function plays a role in the perpetuation of poverty. Although we are fond in higher education of telling stories of individuals overcoming odds and moving up in society, as an overall pattern the great social mobility ideal of college is in some ways a tragic broken promise. The dismal statistics on poverty in America, which affect women and children disproportionately, combined with increasingly reactionary welfare, financial aid, and public education policies reveal the disturbing comfort that society seems to now have with inequity. Those of us in the higher education community need to do what we can to change this.