College Access

This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011.

The term ‘college access’ today suggests not only entry into postsecondary education but also the myriad challenges it poses for many students, particularly minority and low-income students. Researchers contend that tuition costs, racial discrimination, social disadvantages, and lack of adequate academic preparedness have contributed to the vast under-representation of these groups of students on college and university campuses.

For many middle- and lower-income families, the largest barrier to postsecondary education is cost. The average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions recently increased by 14 percent, from $4,115 in 2002-03 to $4,694 in 2003-04 (College Board, 2003). To help offset these rising costs, the U.S. Department of Education provides over $40 billion a year in grants, loans, and work-study assistance to students pursuing a college education. Federal aid represents the largest source of student aid in the nation and over 40 percent of all undergraduates benefited from it in the 1999-2000 school year (U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2002).

Yet in spite of these programs, low-income families are still 32 percent less likely to send their children to college than families with higher incomes. And students from low-income families attend public four-year institutions at about half the rate of equally qualified students from high-income families (U.S. Education Department's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2001). A major reason for this is that the unmet need, or the difference between the cost of one year of education and the amount of aid and family contributions paid toward that cost, is much higher for low-income families than for high-income families. The average unmet need to attend a public four-year university is $3,800 for low-income students compared to $400 for high-income students (U.S. Education Department's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2001).

Some experts claim that recent shifts in federal financial aid programs and the emergence of merit-based scholarship programs have exacerbated the postsecondary participation gap (McKeown-Moak, 2001; U.S. Education Department's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2001). For example, some contend that the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 benefited students from middle and upper class families over students from more needy families since the tax credits it provided were not need based.

Many states have developed merit-based scholarship programs like the Georgia HOPE Scholarship program, which grants students who maintain a B average in high school a full-tuition scholarship to any college or university in the state. In addition to Georgia, 11 other states have put such programs in place (Jacobson, 2003). The programs have found favor in state legislatures but are unpopular with higher education analysts since they award college scholarships based on students’ academic records and not their demonstrated financial need (McKeown-Moak, 2001).

College completion rates for minority students are also a concern. In the fall of 1999, 68 percent of undergraduates enrolled in postsecondary institutions were white, 13 percent were black and 12 percent were Hispanic (U.S. Department of Education, Condition of Education, 2002). College completion statistics, however, show lower completion rates for minority students. While 75 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions in 2000-01 went to white students, only nine percent went to black students and six to Hispanic students (U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2002). Overall, in 2000, 31 percent of African-Americans and 37 percent of Hispanics had not received any postsecondary education, compared to 25 percent of whites (Adelman, 2004).

Colleges and universities have employed various strategies to bolster enrollment of underrepresented groups of students, such as the development of pre-college outreach programs in minority areas and schools. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 74 percent of colleges and universities use recruitment strategies targeted to minority students `(National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2003). However, a form of minority student recruitment popular with many colleges and universities, race-based admissions, has faced legal scrutiny in recent years.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Gratz v. Bollinger that the University of Michigan’s practice of assigned ‘bonus points’ to minority applicants in order to increase their chances of undergraduate admission was unconstitutional since it did not provide all candidates with “individualized consideration” (Alger, 2003). On the other hand, the Court supported the University’s use of race as a factor in bringing a “critical mass” of minority students to the law school. Therefore, even though the Court did not approve of diversifying college campuses through a racially driven point-based admission system, it did allow more comprehensive race-based admission practices to continue (Cavanagh, 2003).

Although targeted recruitment campaigns and considering race as part of admission policies could encourage more minority candidates to apply to college, some researchers worry that increased enrollment rates will not necessarily lead to increased graduation rates. For example, while almost three-fourths of higher education institutions have recruitment programs specifically for minority students, only 42 percent have retention programs designed to support minority students once they matriculate (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2003).

Some researchers believe higher education enrollment and completion gaps between white and minority students and wealthier and disadvantaged students have less to do with poor recruitment/retention strategies or the high cost of tuition and more to do with inadequate academic preparation leading up to college.

According to a recent report from the Manhattan Institute, only nine percent of all college-ready graduates are black and nine percent are Hispanic. The authors of the study developed their definition of college readiness based on such statistics as high school completion, student transcripts and courses taken, and basic reading skills. Freshman enrollment rates for black and Hispanic students are similar to college-readiness rates (11 percent and seven percent, respectively). As a result, the report concludes that it is not so much financial barriers or affirmative action policies that are keeping minority and low-income students out of college. It is that these students are not gaining the college-ready skills they need to continue with their education in the first place (Greene and Forster, 2003).

Numerous policymakers, researchers, educators, and education organizations have tried to tackle the problem of how to better prepare high school students for postsecondary success. For example, the Alliance for Excellent Education has developed a framework they believe will help guide improvements in middle schools and high schools. The framework addresses such issues as child literacy, teacher and principal quality, and working with students at the beginning of their high school experiences to lay out a roadmap to college (Joftus, 2002).

But many scholars believe the real key to increasing college enrollment and graduation rates is the creation of stronger connections between higher education institutions and the K-12 system, a link many states are still struggling to make. In 2002, only four states had fully aligned their high school graduation and college admission requirements in reading and only one state had done so in mathematics or science (Somerville and Yi, 2002). In addition, a study conducted at the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon found that many states’ exit exams, end-of-course assessments, and other state tests do not effectively gauge students’ readiness of college-level work and therefore are poor indicators of postsecondary success (Conley, 2003). The number of students who are forced to take remedial coursework in their first years at college attest to this disconnect; statistics indicate that almost 50 percent of students at four-year colleges have to take some remedial coursework (Adelman, 1999). Further, the report notes, more than one-quarter of freshman at four-year colleges and nearly half of those at two-year colleges do not make it to their sophomore year.

Several organizations have made a commitment to further developing the K-16 connection in order to improve college attendance and graduation rates. The Education Trust, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization, believes that all students need some postsecondary education in order to be successful and gain “solid footing in the economy of the 21st century” but that success in college depends heavily on exposure to rigorous coursework in high school. The organization stresses the importance of developing K-16 oriented education systems typified by clear postsecondary education goals for students, challenging coursework, strong teacher subject-matter competence, and small learning environments (Education Trust, 2001).

In another effort to improve students’ chances at postsecondary success, the Education Trust recently partnered with Achieve, Inc., a non-profit education organization that grew out of a partnership between state governors and corporate leaders, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation to develop the American Diploma Project. The purpose of the project is to identify the reading and mathematics skills high school students need to excel in college and then to help states integrate these skills into their standards and assessment systems. The project recently released its first set of reading and math standards (American Diploma Project, 2004).

Alger, J., “Summary of Supreme Court Decisions in Admissions Cases,” University of Michigan, 2003.

Gladieux, L., “Low-income Students and the Affordability of Higher Education,” in America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor, The Century Foundation, 2004.

National Association for College Admission Counseling, “State of College Admission Report: 2002-03,", 2003.

Somerville, J. and Yi, Y., “Aligning K-12 and Postsecondary Expectations: State Policy in Transition,” The National Association of System Heads, 2002.

U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, 2002.