Mfiblog Sept27

Are America’s colleges solidifying economic castes?

In our first-ever policy agenda, Michigan Future Inc. argues that boosting Michigan’s four-year college degree attainment rate holds the most promise as a strategy to increase household income in our state.

There is ample evidence of the correlation between a state’s college attainment and per capita income. Of the top 15 American states for per capita income, 12 are also among the top 15 for college attainment. The remaining three top states for per capita income hold vast energy resources that boost the state’s economy.

While higher education has long been recognized as the most important driver of upward mobility, modern researchers have noted there is a widening class-based degree attainment gap. Stanford professor Raj Chetty’s research shows that while sixty percent of 25-year-olds from the top fifth of income distribution hold bachelor’s degree, only one-third of 25-year-olds from the next 40 percent are four-year college graduates and only 10 percent of that age cohort from the bottom 40 percent hold bachelor’s degrees.

The head start that upper income students receive includes more and better access to early admissions and other admission preferences like legacy status; merit-based scholarships that reward them for access to quality K-12 educational opportunity and a culture that helps them easily navigate the byzantine application and financial aid processes that can be a real barrier for first-generation college attendees.

Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Richard V. Reeves’ 2017 book Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It outlines the many ways that class separation is an existential threat to the American Dream. Reeves posits that the gulf between upper middle class and every economic class below them threatens America’s long-standing reputation as a meritocracy, an idea he presented in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes:

Although many Americans pride themselves on living in a classless society, there is a growing class separation, especially between the upper middle class and the majority. The divide can be seen in income trends, wealth gaps, neighborhood quality, health, life expectancy and so on. But the most potent symbol of upper-middle class separation is the elite university.

Reeves describes elite universities with voracious appetites for wealthy students whose parents can comfortably pay full tuition. In the push to attract well-heeled students, efforts to expand the economic diversity of student bodies have often been tossed aside.

Reeves suggests three strategies to close the income college attainment gap:

  1. Simplifying the application process. Upper income students have access to college-educated parents, better college. Non-affluent students are much less likely to navigate the complexities of the college application process as easily as their wealthier peers. Reeves also suggests that schools re-think programs such as early admissions, which give affluent students who aren’t reliant on financial aid decisions the upper hand.
  2. Re-think merit scholarships: Colleges started offering modest merit-based scholarships to wealthy students in the 1990s, hoping to attract parents who could afford to pay most of tuition costs. Now the scholarships have become so common that they limit resources available for students with greater financial needs. (Michigan is uniquely awful on this front, using federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families dollars that are intended to support families who need financial support to meet basic needs to fund state merit scholarships to families who could easily afford tuition.)
  3. Widening admissions criteria: Reeves argues that colleges must use innovative strategies to find talented potential applicants from disadvantaged economic groups. He urges colleges to look at how British universities consider “contextual data” to give a leg up to low income students from struggling schools or by giving preferences to applicants from low income zip codes, even those with lower standardized test scores or GPAs.

The ideas that Reeves has promoted are provocative and will likely face significant backlash from the wealthy and well-connected families who benefit from the status quo. But it’s an important debate to have. We need to decide whether we are comfortable with higher education that instead of being an engine of upward mobility is a solidifier of economic castes. For the sake of our state and our country, I hope we are not.

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Kim Trent

Kim Trent was a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. She also serves on the Wayne State University Board of Governors and is especially interested in education policy and race, class and gender issues.

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