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Eight ways to battle the persistent class stratification of higher education

  • Joanna
  • June 13, 2016

The best indicator of whether a person will earn a college degree also appears to be the hardest to change: For nearly half a century, people who come from families in the top quarter of the income strata have made up more than 50 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees at U.S. universities.

That’s according to a study of college attainment patterns released by the Pell Institute, which also shows a corollary trend: Individuals who come from the lower half of the family income spectrum have actually lost ground in college degree attainment since 1970.

“That stratification in access,” the study’s authors wrote, “leads to stratification in outcomes.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the study’s authors attribute a good deal of this stratification to the simple problem of college affordability. And Tom Mortenson, a Pell senior scholar, has proposed eight ways to approach this issue.

While Mortensen’s proposal is aimed at what he believes Congress and the president should do to address college affordability through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, all of his ideas are good fodder for discussion among those who are working feverishly to build (and rebuild) their state-level workforce opportunity initiatives, as well.

  • 1. Increase the maximum Pell Grant award. Today’s Pell Grant maximum is $5,775. If the award bought as much higher education today as it did in the late 1970s when it was created, Mortensen argues, it would be worth nearly three times as much.
  • 2. Create a “super” grant for those with a negative expected family contribution. For now, students whose families are not expected to be able to contribute to their college tuition are treated the same, for the purposes of federal financial aid, as those who are actually supporting their families financially. A more equitable program would recognize that there is a significant difference in need between families that can’t support a student and families that are being supported by a student.
  • 3. Renew state investment in higher education. Why have so many states turned away from investing in higher education? Well, in part it’s because the growth in federal student financial aid has allowed them to do so. Yet adjusted for inflation, federal funding isn’t half of what it used to be — and Mortensen argues it’s time for states to get back in the game by matching the federal government’s Pell funding 50-50 for every dollar above what it currently spends supporting students in need.
  • 4. More work-study opportunities. The share of college freshmen who are employed has fallen by nearly half since 2006. That doesn’t just mean less opportunity to earn money — it means less opportunity to develop both hard and soft employment skills that make any worker more valuable to an employer. From foodservice and janitorial work to research assistance and clerical jobs, more work centered around the college campus would pay big dividends.
  • 5. Income-contingent loans in repayment. Despite the impassioned calls from millions of people who felt #TheBern during this election season, most pundits agree that free college tuition is a political non-starter at this time. What has a real chance of gaining traction, however, is a system that pegs student loan repayments to income — a policy that might even pay for itself by lowering the rates of default on all forms of debt by those who can’t keep up with their student loan repayments.
  • 6. The lottery. It’s no secret that many well-known (and quite wealthy) universities focus quite a bit of their recruiting and admissions efforts on students from wealthy families. These practices might very well be legal for private institutions, but that doesn’t mean every taxpayer must be complicit in this process of class-selectiveness in the form of Title IV student financial aid programs and the other tax-exemption benefits accorded to such institutions. Mortensen’s suggestion: To continue their eligibility for federal benefits, such institutions should be required to admit a substantial portion of their entering freshmen on a lottery basis from a pool of open admission applicants.
  • 7. Boost students’ chances of success before college. Despite studies that have shown participation in pre-college and college support services substantially increase low-income and first-generation students’ chances for success in college, only a very small percentage of eligible students have ever been able to access such services. Increasing funding so that such programs can serve more people in lower economic tiers would boost students’ chances of success.
  • 8. Evaluate all student aid programs equally. Without naming names, Mortensen argues that federal aid programs that serve poor people receive far more oversight and scrutiny than those that typically serve affluent populations. Oversight is good, he writes, but only if it’s applied equally when it comes to all programs and policies people use to pay for college — and which institutions use to fund themselves — including charitable contributions, deductions and income tax credits.