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Race, Class, and College Access Explored in ‘Strivers’ Research

WASHINGTON – Despite gains in college access by minorities, the top tiers of higher education are becoming more affluent and more White as the lower tier and two-year colleges increasingly accommodate more low-income minority students, researchers declared Thursday during a policy forum centered on low-income students and college access.

“There is almost no way that you can use affirmative action to begin to equalize the tiers in this system,” said Dr. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Work Force, during the forum’s lunchtime address at the National Press Club in Washington.

“Since we can’t move low-income and minority students en masse into high-quality systems, we have to move the high-quality systems and the money to pay for them toward the two-year schools and less selective colleges,” Carnevale noted.

The forum, titled “Are Efforts to Increase Equity in Higher Education Working?”, focused on a new book published by the Century Foundation Press examining how better financial aid coupled with strong retention support can empower disadvantaged students to access highly-selective institutions, allowed book contributors to discuss significant points of their research.

The book, titled Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low Income Students Succeed in College, underscores the lack of socioeconomic diversity at highly-selective schools and includes a chapter by Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Work Force, on college access and inequality. 

Researchers found that the socioeconomic barriers to accessing a highly-selective institution were greater than racial ones.

“Being severely socioeconomically disadvantaged predicts an SAT score on the math and verbal sections of 399 points lower than being the most economically advantaged,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at Century and the editor of Rewarding Strivers.

“By contrast, being African-American predicts a score of 56 points lower. That is to say the impact of socioeconomic status is about seven times as large as the impact on race,” Kahlenberg added.

Researchers also found that a number of minority students with low socioeconomic backgrounds “undershot” their college prospects.

“Being fully capable of attending a highly-selective institution, many low-income minority students don’t go to college or they attend a community college or less selective institution,” Strohl said. 

The problem with this, said Strohl, is that less selective institutions have less in the way of support mechanisms necessary to retain low-income students, allowing some students to fall through the cracks.

“The average graduation rate for a two-year college is about 22 percent,” said Strohl, noting that the graduation rates for top-tier schools range from 80 to 90 percent.

The study “America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education,” a precursor to Rewarding Strivers released in 2004, found that 74 percent of students at selective universities and colleges come from the richest quarter of the socioeconomic population while just 3 percent from the bottom quarter.

“On a selective campus, you are 25 times more likely to run into a rich kid as a poor kid,” said Kahlenberg. “Affirmative action programs have, essentially, tripled the representation of African-American and Latino students, but educators have done that by making sure that there were wealthy students of all races at selective institutions rather than trying to make sure that there were people of all colors of all socioeconomic groups.”

In order to increase socioeconomic diversity, universities also need to deal with the admissions component, researchers said.

“Financial aid by itself is not enough. If you have financial aid but don’t admit low-income students it doesn’t do them much good,” said Kahlenberg. “Most colleges don’t consider socioeconomic status in admissions. Being a legacy increases your chances of admissions by 20 percentage points. Being an underrepresented minority increases one’s chances by 28 percentage points. Being poor does not increase one’s position at all at the selective institution.”

As a model for best practices, researchers lauded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s program Carolina Covenant, which provides financial aid and support to students and families earning below 200 percent of the poverty line.

The program provides both the financial aid and the academic and social support mechanisms such as peer and faculty mentors and rigorous monitoring for low-income students to be successful in college.

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