A higher ed system for the rich, another for the poor

The News TribuneAugust 11, 2013 

All college students may be created equal, but the same can’t be said for their educational opportunities.

If anything, disadvantaged students are getting more disadvantaged relative to their affluent peers. That’s the upshot of a new study – “Separate and Unequal” – recently released by Georgetown University.

The Georgetown researchers shoehorned their findings into a white vs. minority paradigm (leaving Asians out, presumably because they didn’t fit the narrative). But substitute “poor” for “minority,” and the Georgetown numbers pretty much echo what others have been saying: Wealthy colleges continue to cater to wealthy kids.

No surprise there. Earlier studies have tracked enrollments at a handful of elite universities, including Ivy League schools, and found that the most selective aren’t falling over themselves to recruit students without money.

Among them are universities with nine- and 10-figure endowments that could well afford to offer abundant financial aid.

At Harvard and Yale, roughly 15 percent of the students receive federal Pell grants, the standard measure of low income among college students. Compare this to the University of Washington, where 33 percent of nonforeign undergraduates get Pell grants.

The Georgetown report starts with wonderful news: The enrollment of black freshman by all colleges in general has risen 73 percent since 1995, and the enrollment of Latino freshmen has risen 107 percent.

But where are those freshmen enrolling? Disproportionately — compared with whites (and no doubt Asians) — they wind up in noncompetitive four-year institutions and community colleges, whose democratic mission is to take all comers. Whites and Asians disproportionately land in the nation’s 468 most selective colleges.

So despite the gains of the disadvantaged, American higher education remains a two-tiered system. Kids from families with modest incomes tend to go to schools with modest funding. Kids with money tend to wind up in brand-name colleges that can fast-track their graduates into high-end careers and elite alumni networks.

Part of the problem is preparation. Community colleges see many kids who are trying to redeem mediocre performances in public schools, and many kids are casualties of poverty and bad schools. Part of the solution is to improve public education and provide better funding for the two-year schools.

Still, many disadvantaged kids are superb students who could thrive in competitive universities — but haven’t been invited. Selective universities tend to crow a lot about their devotion to diversity. Don’t be impressed unless their definition of diversity includes money and the lack thereof.

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