Children whose parents are in professional or managerial jobs are six times more likely to attend elite American private colleges than those whose parents are working class, according to a study by Dr. John Jerrim for The Sutton Trust. They are also three times more likely to go to a highly selective college, including public universities.
The author found that children from disadvantaged economic backgrounds only make up one in 20 students enrolled in highly selective colleges, while those from advantaged backgrounds account for more than half of them.
While academic achievement plays some role in the disparity, it can’t explain the whole gap. “Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to develop the advanced cognitive skills required to enter a high status university,” the report notes, as evidenced by less than 3 percent reaching a high score on the PISA reading test compared to 15 percent of children from the most advantaged backgrounds. But that achievement gap only explains 60 percent of the gap in attending selective public colleges and less than half of the gap in elite private college attendance in the U.S. “This suggests that there are significant numbers of working class children who, even though they have the academic ability to attend, choose to enter a non-selective institution instead,” the report concludes.
Other data has indicated that there is a gap in attending college between the well off and the low income in this country. The rate of high school graduates from low-income families who immediately enrolled in college is 30 percentage points lower than for those from high-income families. The U.S. is also among the worst developed countries when it comes to how many whose parents didn’t go to college complete a degree. The vast majority of high-achieving low-income students don’t even apply to selective universities, although those who do apply are admitted and graduate at higher rates. Instead, they are far more likely to attend for-profit colleges, which are known for low graduation rates and low employment rates that leave students overburdened with debt, than their higher-income peers.
The problem has caught the eye of First Lady Michelle Obama, who recently announced that she will spearhead a new initiative aimed at getting low-income students to college. The administration has met with public university presidents to ask about their efforts in recruiting low-income students, and it may require colleges to set goals to improve those efforts. There may also be federal funding or incentives to push the progress along.
Another solution could be automatic college savings programs with public financing and matching funds to get them going. Students with less than $500 in savings are still three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to graduate. The country already runs TRIO programs, which help low-income students attend college. But instead of investing more in that effort, the programs are suffering under sequestration’s automatic budget cuts, which have had to cope by cutting services and/or the number of people they serve.