Here's The Devastating Way Our College System Fails Poor Kids

Colleges spend the least on students who need the most help.
Trinity College and Capital Community College share the same hometown, but when it comes to the population they serve, they are worlds apart. Trinity students are mostly wealthy, Capital students mostly poor. The campuses reflect this divide: Capital (on the left) is in an old department store. Trinity's stately buildings sprawl across a large, leafy campus.
Trinity College and Capital Community College share the same hometown, but when it comes to the population they serve, they are worlds apart. Trinity students are mostly wealthy, Capital students mostly poor. The campuses reflect this divide: Capital (on the left) is in an old department store. Trinity's stately buildings sprawl across a large, leafy campus.
Julienne Schaer/Hechinger Report

HARTFORD, Conn. – Angel Pérez was raised in the projects of the South Bronx and went to one of the worst-performing high schools in New York City. He aspired to attend a top university, but his grades and SAT scores were unimpressive.

Skidmore, a private college with a sterling reputation, took a chance on the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, and offered the financial aid he required to attend. It was a decision he credits with changing his life.

Twenty years later, Pérez is vice president of enrollment and student success at another elite private college, Trinity, near the center of this struggling New England city, where it is increasingly difficult for him to enroll the type of underprivileged student that he used to be. His experience reflects a new reality of higher education, in which top colleges don’t want to risk damaging their academic reputations -- and even their bond ratings -- by enrolling too many low-income students.

Today, for many colleges, “admitting kids that share my story is riskier,” Pérez said. “Take too many and your average GPA or SAT scores decrease. There goes your U.S. News ranking.” Students who are accepted but drop out can hurt bond ratings.

Once acclaimed as the equal-opportunity stepping stone to the middle class, and a way of closing that divide, higher education is instead becoming more segregated than ever by wealth as state funding has fallen and colleges — and even states and the federal government — are shifting financial aid from lower-income to higher-income students, an examination of federal education data by the Hechinger Report in collaboration with The Huffington Post found.

As college costs have spiraled and household incomes stalled, the proportion of students who are low income has risen sharply since 2008. Nearly half of all college students are now eligible for Pell grants, meaning their families earn less than $40,000 a year.

That’s an increase of 11 percentage points. But elite public and private colleges have boosted their low-income enrollment during that time, on average, by just 3 percentage points.

Top colleges instead are increasingly focused on using financial aid to lure high-income students who they know are most likely to stay for four years, and who can pay much of their own way. This leads to a perverse outcome: a system that spends the least on those who need the most help, and the most on those who arguably need the least.

At Trinity, just a little more than 1 in 10 students are low-income. That proportion is the same as it was at the start of the economic downturn in 2008.

While almost all the students who go to selective institutions such as Trinity graduate and get good jobs, many students from the poorest families — including those who score higher on standardized tests than their wealthier counterparts — find themselves at community colleges and regional public universities with much lower success rates, assuming they continue their educations at all.

“Today in many ways the system is exacerbating inequality,” said Suzanne Mettler, a professor at Cornell University and author of Degrees of Inequality: Why Opportunity Has Diminished in U.S. Higher Education. “It’s creating something of a caste system that for too many people takes them from wherever they were on the socioeconomic spectrum and leaves them even more unequal.”

The Trinity campus is a vision of the best of American higher education. Students stroll with their noses in books past stately red brick dorms and classroom buildings on carefully tended grounds. In the main dining hall, there’s a choice of infused water—lemon, pineapple, strawberry, melon—custom smoothies, all-day breakfasts, make-your-own waffles, and frozen yogurt, along with countless choices of entrees prepared by white-jacketed chefs. A new student center that will include a Starbucks is going up beside the tennis courts. As a college worker clears her dishes, one senior talks over lunch about the job she’s already lined up after graduation with the help of an alumna.

Trinity would like to see the proportion of low-income students here increase, Pérez said in an interview at his office in the admissions building, where applicants find fresh flowers and roaring fires in a waiting room with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the leafy campus. “But these are conversations that are really, really difficult. Do we all want more low-income students? Sure, but we would go into financial ruin.” (Some of the handful of colleges that continue to admit students regardless of their financial need have, in fact, seen their bond ratings go down).

In the cafeteria at Trinity College (right), students choose from many flavors of fruit-infused water. Such perks are not on the menu at Capital Community College, which is housed in an old department building in Hartford (left).
In the cafeteria at Trinity College (right), students choose from many flavors of fruit-infused water. Such perks are not on the menu at Capital Community College, which is housed in an old department building in Hartford (left).
Julienne Schaer/Hechinger Report

As the proportion of undergraduates who are low-income has increased to 49 percent since 2008, the federal figures show that some of the nation’s most elite private universities and colleges — the category that includes such lush green, lavishly equipped campuses as Brown, Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, Yale and Stanford — are taking only a few more of them than the very small percentages they always have, up from 12 percent of their total student bodies, on average, to 15 percent now.

Elite flagship public institutions such as the universities of Oregon, Texas at Austin, Washington, and Connecticut do slightly better; there, the proportion of students who are low income has grown from an average of 20 percent to 28 percent.

Instead, low-income students are increasingly winding up at for-profit universities such as ITT Tech, Brown Mackie, DeVry, and the University of Phoenix, where the proportion who are low income has jumped from 49 percent to 66 percent since 2008, and where graduation rates are the worst in higher education.


They’re also concentrated at regional public universities whose already thinly stretched funding to support them has generally been sliding downward, such as Alabama State, Boise State, and Southeastern Oklahoma State, some 41 percent of whose students now are low income.

And 42 percent of students are low income at the hardest-pressed sector of American higher education: community colleges, which spend less per student than many public primary and secondary schools, and where the odds of ever graduating are also comparatively low.

Across the city from Trinity, off an exit from an elevated highway, is Capital Community College, where the daily routine for students most definitely does not include fruit-infused water. Simply getting to the school is a challenge: students dodge downtown traffic to squeeze into the sluggish elevators in time for the start of their classes. This campus consists of a concrete parking garage and a onetime department store converted into classrooms and offices.

There’s a campaign here to start a food bank for students who can’t afford food, even though many work full time. Many also are raising families. Nearly 60 percent are low-income, up 12 percentage points since 2008.

“There are plenty of smart people here,” said one, Julian Lopez, who is catching up on his homework between classes. “But everything’s about the money. The majority of people who come here, it’s because they can’t afford to go to more expensive schools. It depends on how much money you have and how much money your parents make.”

And that increasingly determines how much is invested in these students, and their odds of success in life. Trinity spends two and a half times more per student on instruction than Capital Community College, where the budget for student services has actually declined since 2008, owing in large part to cuts in state funding.

“If we’re going for the same job, they’re going to pick the kid from Trinity.”

- Julian Lopez, Capital Community College student

Taxpayer outlays for community colleges nationwide are down almost 5 percent since 2008, and some state financial aid has been shifted to students who go to private colleges and universities.

“There are other things we’d like to provide, but we can’t,” said Capital’s president, Wilfredo Nieves.

Only 7 percent of students graduate from the two-year college within even three years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. (The school says another 23 percent transfer.) At Trinity, 86 percent of students finish their four-year degrees within six years.

In part because of disparities like this, students from high-income families are a staggering eight times more likely to get bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24 than students from low-income families, up from six times more likely in 1970, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

That gives them a head start that only widens over time. Within 10 years of graduating, 65 percent of those who go to Trinity have or are on their way to getting advanced degrees in business, law, medicine and other fields. Their mid-career earnings average $86,500, the salary reporting service PayScale says, compared to what the American Institutes for Research estimates the handful who graduate from Capital make: $51,438.

“The gap between the haves and the have-nots is just getting bigger,” said Laura Perna, chairman of the higher-education division at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “Really it calls into question the American dream. We tell people, just work hard and you’ll have these opportunities available.”

Game room at Capital Community College (left) and waiting room for the admissions office at Trinity College (right).
Game room at Capital Community College (left) and waiting room for the admissions office at Trinity College (right).
Julienne Schaer/Hechinger Report

The stratification by income of higher education is not necessarily about academic ability. The lowest-income students with the highest scores on eighth-grade standardized tests are less likely to go to selective colleges than the highest-income students with the lowest test scores, according to the Education Trust, which advocates for students who are being left behind in this way. If poor students do manage to make it to a top school, many do well — at Trinity, for instance, finishing with even higher graduation rates than their wealthier classmates.

Yet more than a fifth of those high-achieving low-income students don’t go to college at all, never mind to top colleges, the Education Trust says. Only 16 percent find their way to highly selective schools, and fewer than half continue their educations anywhere, compared to nearly all of their wealthier counterparts at every level of ability.

Cost is a principal reason, of course. Average tuition has more than doubled since 1970 when adjusted for inflation, according to the Pell Institute, and income and financial aid have not remotely kept pace. Among other reasons for the huge tuition increases: the pricey arms race in amenities to attract higher-income students, a huge increase in the number of administrators, and other non-academic expenses, all fueled by the easy supply of government-subsidized loans.

In 1975, the maximum federal Pell Grant covered two-thirds of the average cost of college; today, that’s fallen to about a quarter. So while a higher education is a strain for even the wealthiest families, who will annually spend an amount equal to 15 percent of their earnings on one, the lowest-income families have to pay, on average, the equivalent of 84 percent of their earnings. This at exactly the time when median family income has increased for the wealthiest Americans but flattened off or fallen for the poorest.

Colleges and universities, meanwhile, have their own financial preoccupations. Public universities, faced with declining state funding, are raising tuition and recruiting higher-paying out-of-state students. Public and private colleges are offering wealthier applicants billions of dollars in financial aid that once went to lower-income students, the U.S. Department of Education found. While private colleges often say that they give lots of money in financial aid, they don’t specify who’s getting it, and the proportion of students who get aid for reasons other than need has doubled in the last 20 years, the department found.

“Machiavelli would be proud of how evil this education finance system has become”

- Tom Mortenson, Pell Institute

Students from schools in higher-income suburbs usually do better on college entrances exams such as the SAT and other measures that make the colleges that accept them look better in national rankings.

Some states have also shifted financial aid to more upscale recipients. In an effort to stop high-achieving and often high-income students from moving away; 12 states plus Washington D.C. now spend more on so-called merit-based aid than on need-based aid. In 15 states, less than half of taxpayer-funded financial aid now takes financial circumstances into account, the College Board reports.

Some federal financial aid programs, such as work study, have also been shown to disproportionately benefit wealthier students. Nearly one in five work-study recipients — who earn an average of $1,642 each, per academic year, by working in dining halls, libraries, and other places on and off campus — comes from a family whose annual income exceeds $100,000, according to research conducted at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Even private scholarships from the likes of Rotary clubs and others disproportionately go to wealthier families whose parents and college counselors know to apply for them. Nearly 13 percent of students from families that make more than $106,000 a year get private scholarships, compared with about 9 percent of those whose families earn less than $30,000, according to the Education Department.

Machiavelli would be proud of how evil this education finance system has become,” said Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute. “Why are we subsidizing wealthy students? You’re just shifting the cost onto students who can’t afford it.”

In fact, since 2008, lower-income students have seen the amount they pay, after grants and scholarships, rise even faster than it has for their higher-income classmates.

“The United States is — quote, unquote — the greatest country in the world,” said Yvonne Duhaney, a student majoring in social services at Capital Community College and the first in her family to go to college, who hopes to continue on to get a bachelor’s degree. “Yet if you’re not part of that population, the 1 percent, you’re not guaranteed to go to college. Some people, even though they want to go to college, they have to worry about putting food on the table.”

Meanwhile, families in the top 10 percent of incomes have vastly increased what they spend on such things as test preparation, private schools, and other things meant to give their kids a leg up in admission, according to a report by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Resumé-building may be the last thing on many lower-income students’ minds. In many cases the first in their families to go to college, they’re often derailed by the complicated process of not only making themselves look good to admissions officers, but simply applying for admission and financial aid.

“If you come from a community where your parents went to college, and it’s part of the dinnertime conversation, then it’s in your expectations,” said Doris Arrington, dean of student services at Capital Community College. “Many of our students don’t have that kind of information.”

If lower-income students do manage to overcome the odds and enroll in college, they face still more hurdles. More of them work while enrolled, the U.S. Department of Education reports. Especially on elite campuses, that reinforces a socioeconomic split.

“You can think of it as a luxury cruise,” said Laura Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of California Merced and coauthor of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. “There are the people who are there to enjoy their four-year vacation, and people who are there to serve them. The only interaction that poor students have with wealthy students is picking up their towels at the [campus] gym or washing their dishes in the cafeteria.”

For that, along with financial reasons, Hamilton said, lower-income students often quit. “If they even make it to a flagship university in the first place, which is extremely unlikely, a lot of them can’t stay there, and a lot of them leave because of the total isolation and segregation,” she said.

Separate, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, “is rarely equal, and when you look at outcomes, that’s true.”

While primary and secondary schools that serve the lowest-income Americans get additional federal and, in two-thirds of the states, state aid to help them overcome disparities in funding, he said, “in higher education, we’re doing precisely the reverse. We give the fewest resources to the students with the greatest need.”

Trinity students say they are aware of their good fortune. “For me and I know for most students here, my only worry is getting my homework done, because everything else is sort of given to us,” said Miguel Adamson, an international studies major, sitting under a tree on the campus working on his laptop.

Student government senate meeting at Capital Community College (left). Angel Pérez, admissions dean, tells a story before the start of a meeting at Trinity College (right).
Student government senate meeting at Capital Community College (left). Angel Pérez, admissions dean, tells a story before the start of a meeting at Trinity College (right).
Julienne Schaer/Hechinger Report

With relatives who are lower-income — including a cousin with whom he has discussed this issue — he has been “more exposed, I think, to what some people are up against,” Adamson said. “I would take things for granted and she would yell at me, ‘You don’t know what the struggles are.’”

Other Trinity students think about this rift, too, said Rose Carroll, a senior political science major from Pasadena, California, who already has a job lined up for when she graduates in the spring, thanks to the help of an alumna.

“We talk about these issues a lot,” Carroll said in the dining hall. Like other top colleges, she said, Trinity “is an amazing pocket of intellectual diversity but not economic diversity. Students care about this, but they’re not sure how to address it.”

When low-income students graduate from a school that doesn’t have the reputation of an elite public or private college, they lack the alumni networking advantages that students finishing elite schools get. Research at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management finds employers disproportionately prefer graduates from prestigious colleges who have participated in extracurricular activities such as playing lacrosse and squash and who have served in internships — pursuits less likely to have been available to lower-income students.

“If we’re going for the same job, they’re going to pick the kid from Trinity,” Lopez, the Capital Community College student, said with a shrug of resignation.

It’s not that universities couldn’t take more lower-income students if they wanted to — especially top public universities with high graduation rates but low proportions of such students. An October report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that Penn State, for example, could double the 15 percent of low income students now on its campus. If the university did so, about 900 more lower-income students per year would graduate, the study estimates. If the same thing happened at all the universities and colleges that now take fewer lower-income students than they could, the report concluded, 57,500 more low income students would graduate each year.

Among other things, advocates are pushing for private universities and colleges to be required to increase their enrollments of lower-income students in exchange for continuing to receive billions of dollars of tax exemptions.

Mortenson, from the Pell institute, is not optimistic. Access to an equitable college education “is really crucial to what America is, was, and at least used to stand for,” he said. “It clearly doesn’t stand for that any more. The data show, in every way you look at it, that we’re on the wrong path.”

Leon Lewis hopes that isn’t true. A student at Capital Community College studying social work, he wants something better for his three children.

“I want my kids,” said Lewis, “to go to a four-year university.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with The Huffington Post.

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