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CONVERGENCE: Further Threats to Minority and Low-Income Individuals’ Access to Higher Education Possible

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"Until now, these previously identified trends have been discussed largely in isolation," said Jamie Merisotis

The benefits of additional years of education after high school are well defined. Research has shown that individuals with more education tend to have higher salaries, higher savings, better health, and longer life expectancies. However, a new report cautions that access to postsecondary education could be increasingly denied to low-income, minority, and other traditionally underserved student populations. According to Convergence: Trends Threatening to Narrow College Opportunity in America, a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a series of trends, including reduced financial aid, higher tuition, and fewer early intervention programs, are coming together in a way that could decrease postsecondary educational opportunities to disadvantaged populations.

“Until now, these previously identified trends have been discussed largely in isolation,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “However, we found that when taken together, the convergence and interaction among them has a much greater impact than each separately might suggest.”

Underserved populations are already less likely to enroll in some form of postsecondary education than their middle- and higher income peers. According to the report, 80% of high-income high school completers went to college by the October following graduation, compared to only 53% of low-income students.

The report identifies several trends that, if unchecked, will likely lead to less opportunity for minority and low-income students. It notes that federal, state, and institutional financial aid appears to be shifting toward an increase in merit-based awards, which disproportionately flows to white and more affluent students, and away from need-based aid. For example, it notes that aid based on academic merit grew over 4 times the rate of need-based aid from 1993-94 to 2003-04. At the same time, early intervention and awareness programs that target low-income and first-generation students have been threatened with elimination or budget cuts.

Today, students from all but the wealthiest families are struggling to cope with skyrocketing tuition. According to the report, the maximum Pell Grant-the “foundation of federal need-based aid programs”-covered only 36% of the average price of attendance at a public 4-year institution in 2004-05, down from 42% in 2001-02. As a result, more low-income students are taking on additional debt to pay for their education.

Considering each trend in isolation mutes the collective effect, but as the report notes, the cumulative effect is staggering. In order to preserve postsecondary opportunities for all students, it says that the higher education system will have to change “significantly.” It calls for a partnership of nearly everyone involved in higher education: local, state, and federal lawmakers, students and parents, the private sector, the media, college faculty, leadership at all kinds of institutions, etc.

In its recommendations, the report says that resources should be focused on students who need them the most and would not otherwise be able to attend and complete college. It also says that tuition increases at a state’s public institutions should be limited to that state’s average increase in family income. To offset these sacrifices on the part of postsecondary institutions, the report calls for a “new and prestigious competitive grant” that would provide financial support and recognition to colleges and universities for attempts to accommodate students who have historically not been well served. It would also reward institutions that perform well in attracting and retaining low-income and minority students.

The complete report is available at http://www.ihep.org/Pubs/PDF/ConvergenceFINAL.pdf.

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