Special Topic: Issues of SES in Higher Education

Is Post-Secondary Education on a Level Playing Field?

By Kristin N. Williams-Washington, MA

The theory that everyone has an equal footing in attaining a college degree is erroneous in practice. Yes, it may be true that all are welcome to apply, but there are various circumstances that both impede and hinder individuals from lower SES backgrounds from acquiring college degrees.

Specifically for minorities of lower SES, acquiring a college degree can be fraught with many barriers when compared to their White counterparts. The table below indicates that minorities are trailing their White colleagues in attaining a Bachelor’s degree or higher by least 12%. Oftentimes individuals from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds possess unstated, but implied hindrances which may restrict them from attaining this seemingly guaranteed education. Barriers include limited/no information about college, college preparation, or financial aid, feeling the need to work in order to help support the family or that if they leave they are abandoning their family. The greatest impediment is the lack of or lack of access to information and preparation.


Race/Ethnicity BA/BS or Higher
Non-Hispanic White 28.1%
Black/African American 15.5%
Hispanic 14.8%
Native American/American Indian 14.7%

 SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Supplementary Survey PUMS Data Set

Different circumstances exist given ones socioeconomic status. It is often understood from birth that more privileged individuals will go to college. This is not always the case for those less privileged. In high schools that rank below those in the top tier, programs to prepare students to attend college don’t even exist. Personally having the privilege to witness both accounts, I attended a predominantly minority high school and then moved to a predominantly White high school. In the White high school, the option not to attend college was not even an option. Almost every student was placed into college preparatory classes and those who were not learned a trade and understood that they would most likely attend a community college.

Instead of having to search for information about college and seek out guidance counselors to write letters of recommendation, as is typical in most high schools in lower SES areas, students in higher SES areas are scheduled to meet with their guidance counselors who seem to have a vested interest in their students attending college. This fundamental difference may have everything to do with the lack of adequate funding in areas of disadvantaged SES. In order to promote a level playing field, it is necessary to initiate an equal starting point.