Updated July 8, 2011
The challenges related to "college access" go well beyond being accepted into post-secondary programs to include the hurdles that prevent many students, particularly minority and low-income students, from completing degrees. Researchers contend that the rising cost of tuition, social disadvantages, and lack of adequate academic preparedness have contributed to under-representation of these groups of students on college and university campuses.
In 2010, 70 percent of students were enrolling in a two- or four-year college within two years of graduating from high school, but Education Week’s Diplomas Count 2011 report found that many were dropping out a year or two later, often winding up thousands of dollars in debt and with no clear path to a well-paying occupation. By age 27, only about 40 percent had earned either a baccalaureate or associate degree (Education Week, 2011).
For many low-income families, the largest barrier to postsecondary education is the cost. The average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions reached $7,605 per year in 2010 for in-state students, up from $4,115 in 2002. Tuition and fees at private non-profit four-year college costs rose to an average of $27,293, and tuition and fees at public two-year colleges were, on average, $2,713 in 2010 (College Board, 2010). As costs rose during the 1990s and early 2000s, the percentage of academically qualified low-income high school graduates attending four-year colleges fell, from 54 percent in 1992 to 40 percent in 2004, and the percentage of qualified moderate-income students dropped from 59 percent to 53 percent (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).
To help offset the rising costs, the U.S. Department of Education awards billions of dollars in financial aid to undergraduate students. Federal aid represented the largest source of student aid in the nation in the early 2000s, with over 65 percent of all undergraduates benefitting from the $154 billion provided in the 2007-2008 school year (U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2008).
However, some experts claim that changes in federal financial aid programs, the emergence of merit-based scholarship programs, and a shift toward tuition tax credits that primarily help the middle-class have exacerbated the postsecondary participation gap (McKeown-Moak, 2001; U.S. Department of Education, Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2001; Education Trust 2010). The federal Pell Grant program maintained the maximum aid of $5,550 in 2011, but that was expected to drop as the program’s costs continued to rise (Johnson, April 2011). At the same time, Pell Grants weren’t going as far for students. In 1980, Pell Grants were targeted to cover 99 percent of the cost of public 2-year colleges, and 77 percent of the cost of public 4-year universities. By 2006-07, that had fallen to 62 percent of the cost of 2-year institutions and 36 percent of the cost of 4-year institutions, according to Education Trust (Education Trust, 2010).
Many states began developing merit-based scholarship programs in the 1990s and early 2000s to help. 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, was a model for many of them. However, the recession that started in 2007 took a toll on funding for those programs in many states (Johnson, August 2010). As state money dwindled, private scholarships began reaching out on a wider scale to entire districts. In Michigan, the Kalamazoo Promise program, started in 2005, guarantees graduates of the Kalamazoo district tuition and fees assistance for four years at a public university in that state. Other cities set a grade-point average bar for recipients. In New Haven Conn., Yale University helped launch the New Haven Promise program in 2010, which requires a 3.0 high school GPA, to begin paying full in-state tuition for eligible students in 2014 (Johnson, November 2010).
Still, the unmet need—the difference between the cost of one year of education and the amount of aid and family contributions—among students of families making less than $30,000 reached $10,500 at public research universities (Education Trust, 2010).
Along with concerns about costs, a debate has been underway for decades over whether all students should attend college. The focus on vocational and trade schools in the 1940s shifted to comprehensive high schools, and the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” launched a focus on stronger academic preparation, with an aim toward college readiness, reflecting the need for an increasingly technically skilled workforce.
Some universities launched programs in the 1990s to increase minority enrollment, which led to the U.S. Supreme Court's involvement in programs at the University of Michigan. The high court ruled in the case Gratz v. Bollinger that the university's practice of assigning "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), but it supported the university’s use of race as a factor in bringing a “critical mass” of minority students to the law school. Colleges and universities have also employed strategies such as pre-college outreach programs in minority areas and schools. A push to allow undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition also rose in the early 2000s to make high education more affordable.
Many scholars believe the key to increasing college readiness—and graduation rates—is the creation of stronger connections between higher education institutions and the K-12 system. The number of students who take remedial coursework in their first years at college attest to this disconnect: In 2010, three out of every five community college students needed at least one remedial course, and fewer than 25 percent of those students successfully earn a degree within eight years, according to the National Education Longitudinal Study (Johnson, September 2010).
The shift by most states toward common standards offered an opportunity for greater focus on K-16 alignment and a way to close the college-readiness gap. Still, questions remained about whether all students should be pushed to take college-prep courses rather than classes that could put them on the track to developing other vocational skills.
President Obama in 2009 set a goal of the United States having the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020, up from 12th globally in 2008. In the 2011 report “Pathways to Prosperity,” however, Harvard University researchers argued that job-market realities and college-completion patterns demand that schools pay more attention to those students who might not be headed for a four-year college degrees (Education Week, 2011; Gewertz, 2011; Harvard University, 2011). According to Harvard, two-thirds of the jobs created in the United States by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, but of those, nearly half will go to people with occupational certificates or associate degrees.