College & Workforce Readiness

Barriers to College: Lack of Preparation Vs. Financial Need

By Sean Cavanagh — January 21, 2004 4 min read
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As politicians, academic leaders, and researchers decry the impact of rising tuition prices on college access for needy students, others say such concerns mask a more serious barrier for college aspirants: lack of academic preparation.

More information on the Century Foundation and Manhattan Institute studies is available.

The debate was renewed last week with the publication of a book from the Century Foundation analyzing the reasons low-income students trail their wealthier peers in going to college, and a sharp response from the Manhattan Institute contending that the foundation was overemphasizing financial barriers.

“Lack of financial resources is not preventing a substantial number of students from going to college,” said Greg Forster, a researcher at the Manhattan Institute and a co-author of a recent study on students’ lack of college readiness. “I’m not disputing that there are barriers to going to college, but they’re not financial.”

Others strongly disagree with that view, pointing to recent studies that show college-qualified students being shut out of higher education. At the very least, the price and preparation hurdles are interrelated, they say.

“I object to the ‘either-or’ way of thinking about it,” said Patrick M. Callan, the president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a research and advocacy organization in San Jose, Calif. “Everybody wants to ride one horse. There is no one horse.”

The Century Foundation’s book, America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, features an essay examining the reasons needier students lag behind more affluent peers in going to college; another explores the current role of race and socioeconomic status in college admissions.

The day of the work’s release, Jan. 14, however, the Manhattan Institute, a think tank based in New York City, issued its own statement criticizing what it views as the Century Foundation’s excessive emphasis on financial barriers to college, as opposed to lack of academic preparation.

“Clearly, there are very few students who are college-ready but are kept out of college for financial reasons,” the Manhattan Institute statement said.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, who edited the Century Foundation book, noted that an essay in the new book focuses on academic preparation. The authors were clearly interested in academic barriers, too, he said.

“We try to give equal weight to [those two] issues,” said Mr. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York advocacy institute that researches a broad range of social issues.

Patching the Pipeline

One of the Century Foundation’s essayists who focused on academic readiness, Arthur M. Hauptman, described how preparation, participation, and performance were equally integral principles for low-income students aiming to make it to college.

Yet “almost all of the money, and almost all of the policies, are focused on that middle ‘P'— participation,” he said last week at a Washington press conference.

Last September, the Manhattan Institute addressed the lack of academic readiness among teenagers in its own report. Mr. Forster and co-author Jay P. Greene estimated that only 70 percent of students who entered public high schools graduated with traditional diplomas.

Of those who graduated, only 50 percent had completed the necessary academic curriculum to gain entry even into relatively nonselective four-year colleges, the researchers concluded.

The upshot: Only 32 percent of all U.S. students who enter public high schools are leaving qualified to attend four-year colleges, the Manhattan Institute study found. The percentages for minorities were even lower: Only 20 percent of all African-American students and 16 percent of Hispanic students who entered high school left ready for college.

Even with the heightened emphasis on academic improvement and testing prompted by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to report dropout rates, elected officials, the public, and the news media seem less focused on college readiness than on cost, Mr. Forster said.

“The public is generally middle-class and suburban,” he said. “The rising cost of college is very real to them, but the failure of inner-city schools in preparing students academically is not as real to them.”

But other experts say that price and academic preparation routinely intersect, particularly for low-income families.

Jacqueline E. King, a policy director for the American Council on Education in Washington cited studies showing that many disadvantaged students are unaware of their financial-aid options.

“Are they opting out of challenging courses in high school because they assume they can’t pay for college?” Ms. King said. “A lot of this is about information.”

For the most part, higher education leaders have not taken a prominent role in recent K-12 academic reforms, Mr. Callan said. Yet both he and Ms. King pointed to efforts such as Stanford University’s Bridge Project, which is aimed at improving the connection between precollegiate standards and college expectations. They said they hoped other K-12 and college officials would collaborate in similar ways.

Ms. King’s organization is working on a publication exploring those partnerships. “There’s a lot of effort out there to provide information to high school students and their families,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Barriers to College: Lack of Preparation Vs. Financial Need

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