Practitioners and Policymakers Must Step Up to Address ‘Pervasive Inequality’ in College Access

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Many Americans believe that the college selection process is a meritocracy: students who get good grades and score well on the SAT or ACT should be able to attend any competitive college of their choice, regardless of their family background. Yet, a new study in the journal Equity and Excellence in Education adds to a growing body of research documenting the fallacy of this belief. The findings show students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds often “under-match” into colleges and universities that are less selective than their academic preparation appears to warrant.

“Pervasive Inequality in the Stratification of Four-Year College Destinations” uses national data from the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study to document the college application, acceptance, and enrollment patterns of students with low and high socioeconomic status (SES) who are attending four-year colleges. Based on students’ high school grades, SAT/ACT scores, and AP course completion, the study found that low-SES students tend to apply to, get accepted to, and ultimately enroll in less selective colleges than their similarly prepared, high-SES peers. Even among the least prepared students, high-SES students are ultimately three times as likely as their low-SES peers to enroll in a highly selective college.

These application and enrollment choices are problematic, in part, because schools that are more selective tend to have higher graduation rates than those that are less selective. The study found that, on average, high-SES students enroll in colleges that have higher graduation rates than do their similarly prepared low-SES peers. Low-SES students, meanwhile, tend to enroll in schools where students have a lower likelihood of emerging with a degree.

Both K-12 and higher education practitioners as well as policymakers can help to mitigate these inequities in college access. A research study from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center found sharply different rates of under-matching even among high schools in similar locations that serve similar students with similar funding resources. This suggests that high school counselors and teachers are not presenting low-SES students with enough college information to help them understand their full range of choices or to understand the trade-offs associated with attending less-selective colleges. Colleges can help by taking a more proactive role in recruiting low-SES students and in providing them with the financial, academics and social supports they need to enter, master, and complete college. Policymakers can do their part by directing aid toward low-income students so that financial barriers do not undercut access and success in college.

— Marni Bromberg and Mary Nguyen