Special Topic: Issues of SES in Higher Education

The Academic Divide

What is causing the divide in admissions and keeping low and middle-class students out of college?

By Jason J. Zodda

The most current data shows that the average wage difference between an individual with a high school degree and one with a college degree is about $30,000—clearly illustrating the economic impact of a college education (Isaacs, Sawhill, & Haskins, 2008). It is reassuring to have data that confirms the long-held belief of a quality education engendering a more successful future, though the results should not come as a surprise. Many Americans believe a college degree will provide a better future for them and their families. This fact is rooted in the ever rising influx of college enrollment: the most recent estimate showing an increase of nearly 19% between 2000 and 2006 (Davis & Bauman, 2008). While these figures represent an enhanced outlook for future generations, a concealed fact is that the enrollment increase is not uniformly distributed. A wide array of factors—race, age, and gender, to name a few—appear to be skewing the data (Carnevale & Rose, 2004). This article will focus on how socioeconomic status (SES) affects enrollment in higher education.

In a recent study, Isaacs and colleagues (2008) found the average amount of education for individuals born into wealthy families (defined as the 80th percentile) was about 17 years (i.e., a college degree or better). Conversely, Americans born into families with earnings in the 20th percentile averaged only about 12 years of education (i.e., a high school degree; Isaacs et al., 2008). The study went on to show that children from wealthier families are more than twice as likely to enroll in a four year college (Isaacs et al., 2008).  In our current economic state, this academic divide will become a more painful reality to the average American worker.

What is causing the divide in admissions and keeping low and middle-class students out of college? Initially, many cite financial reasons, and they may be right: the amount of funding available for low SES students pales in comparison to the amount allocated for many others, athletes for example (Carnevale & Rose, 2004). Nonetheless, finances are just one part of the puzzle. In addition, researchers are examining how prepared high school students are for entering higher education (e.g., Isaacs et al., 2008). Isaacs and colleagues explained that students born into lower SES quartiles are less prepared for the college enrollment process and receive less assistance than their wealthier peers. Applying to college can be one of the most challenging tasks a high school student undertakes. Lengthy application forms, letters of recommendation, writing samples, and the most convoluted task of all, attaining financial aid, is an arduous process even for those with assistance (e.g., a competent teacher or family member). Isaacs et al. argued that ineffective high school systems and a lack of assistance are key contributors to the admissions divide.

Lessening the academic divide will be neither simple nor swift. An overhaul of the collegiate admissions system is not realistic. A practical alternative is to utilize the findings by Isaacs and colleagues (2008) and allocate resources to increase student preparedness. This includes SAT test prep classes, admissions coaching, increased financing, and additional advanced placement classes. These initiatives place more power into the hands of the student, giving them increased opportunities to utilize and improve their academic skills.