The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday April 23rd

Report shows low-income students have stagnant university enrollment

A new report from the Pell Institute, Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States, highlights the socioeconomic disparities in higher education over a 45-year period.

Staff writer Joe Martin spoke with Margaret Cahalan, one of the authors of the report, about what might be causing the stunted enrollment of low-income students in colleges and universities.

Daily Tar Heel: What is the purpose of this report?

Margaret Calahan: The first one was to really provide a tool, whereby, those of us that are interested in higher education equity issues could do a self-assessment. We have national goals and core values of peoples’ access to education within our country. So this was looking at the higher-ed level of, 'How well are we doing in this area?'

And then, the second one I think was a purpose to really initiate sort of a sheer dialogue among people who were interested to search for solutions.

DTH: What would you say is the main conclusion that you found?

MC: One of the main conclusions is that there are great inequalities of peoples’ chances of getting or entering post-secondary (education), where they will go and whether they will get a bachelor’s degree — depending upon their family’s income situation. And that, for some of these indicators, they are getting worse over time in the sense that while there has been an increase among all groups within our population in entering post-secondary (education) … those in the lowest quartile (of income) have had little movement.

It’s a complex issue. It’s related to many things — obviously, related to the college costs and the decline of the public support for higher education. And also, another factor is the competitiveness of entrance into selective schools and this leads to sort of a sorting that occurs with students ... really throughout elementary and middle and high school, into tracks.

The other thing is that when we look at other countries … many of these countries that have surpassed the U.S. are countries where just a decade ago we were ahead of them — and many of them are countries that have a lot of poverty and really low educational levels but they managed to set goals and now they have higher educational achievement than we do. So, I think that’s a sobering fact.

DTH: Why do you think low-income students tend to gravitate toward for-profit institutions?

MC: I think it’s important to note that while it is true that within these for-profit institutions a higher percentage of those students are getting Pell grants are low-income, but most low-income students are not in for-profit institutions. It’s probably about 9 percent of the students overall are in for-profit institutions, and while poor students are more likely to be there, it’s a misnomer to think that all the poor students are going to for-profits because most of them are, in fact, going to public institutions.

If you look at the data in the report, it’s pretty clear how 76 percent of undergraduates are in public institutions and this is not really different than it was in 1970. The sector that has declined is the private non-profit sector and I think the reason why poor students don’t go to that sector is because of the cost.

Why these students go, I think, is because of the open admissions policies that these schools have, and I think that for many poor students, this is perceived as their only option. I think that many of these schools do a lot of recruitment. It is an opportunity for students that think they don’t have, or perceive that they have.

I think it’s a complicated thing. I would just say that part of the reason is access and recruitment is the reason.

DTH: What can politicians and education leaders do to promote college affordability?

MC: Well, I think that first of all we have to recognize that if we want to have quality education, we need to invest more in it than we have as a nation, at the state and at the local level. I think that for a variety of reasons that investment has not kept pace with reality we need to invest in it.

I think that we have to be innovative and if you look at countries that are certainly not more resourced than the United States, they find the money to educate their students. I think that there are ways we can incentivize within the U.S. system.

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