Completing a college education is a large contributor to a young person's career success and lifetime earnings. A college education is one of the strongest ways through which a disadvantaged young person can have a better life than his or her parents enjoyed. So being able to go to college is a crucial part of social mobility.
Does the United States do a good job of ensuring equitable access to higher education and the benefits that this access creates for all its citizens? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be -- not as good a job as we think.
William Bowen and various colleagues have done some of the best research available on the workings of American universities, including specialized research on finances, affirmative action, athletics, and social access. Particularly important is a body of research on access conducted by Bowen, Martin Kurzweil, and Eugene Tobin and presented in Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Virginia, 2005). Their question in this study concerns the level of access to college that children have coming from families in different social and economic circumstances -- basically, affluent families and poor families.
A primary data source for considering this set of questions is the National Educational Longitudinal Study (link). Here is a crude summary of the differential rates of access that exist by socioeconomic status and race. Bowen et al provide data that show that in 2000, children from families in the bottom income quartile attend college at about the rate of 39 percent, the second quartile at about 58 percent, the third quartile at about 69 percent, and the top income quartile at about 76 percent (Bowen et al, figure 4.1). Family income is thus a powerful factor in determining the likelihood of college attendance. This differential by socioeconomic status is mirrored by an equally striking differentiation of college attendance by race in 2000; Hispanic young people attended college at a 48 percent rate, black young people attended at about a 55 percent rate, and white young people attended at a rate of about 64 percent (Bowen et al, figure 4.2).
Bowen and his co-investigators argue that these differential rates of college attendance across socioeconomic status and race have a great deal to do with economic differences across families during childhood.
Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin next turn their attention to the highly selective and elite colleges and universities that have the highest prestige in the United States. Here they have gathered extensive admissions and academic outcomes data from 19 academically selective colleges and universities: Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Yale, Barnard, Bowdoin, Macalester, Middlebury, Oberlin, Pomona, Smith, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Williams, Penn State, UCLA, University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, and the University of Virginia. They make use of this data set to pose a similar set of questions: how important are familial socioeconomic status and race when it comes to admission, matriculation, and graduation from these selective colleges and universities?
As a general rule, families that have high incomes and high levels of educational attainment when their children are of college age had high incomes and high levels of educational attainment when their children were young, and these persistent advantages enabled them to enhance the "college preparedness" of their children in reinforcing ways (Bowen et al, 77).
Their findings are striking. In this combined data set, only 11.7 percent of applicants come from families in the bottom income quartile, only 9.1 percent of admitted students come from this segment, 10.8 percent of enrolled students come from the bottom quartile, and 10.6% of graduates are from families in the bottom income quartile (figure 5.1). Only 3.1 percent of the incoming cohort of 1995 were students from the bottom income quartile and also first-generation college students. This means that the children of families in the bottom quartile of American families are significantly under-represented in these elite colleges and universities.
Their analysis of the admissions process finds that this underrepresentation of students from low SES families at these selective colleges and universities does not derive from discrimination at the level of the admissions process. In fact, their data demonstrate that selective colleges treat highly qualified students from the bottom income quartile fairly. Highly qualified students from the bottom income quartile are admitted and enrolled at roughly the same rates as highly qualified students from higher quartiles. The gap between affluent and non-affluent students derives from a much earlier stage in the process.
So the fundamental results of their research are very important: there are embodied structures of advantage and disadvantage in our society that have systematic effects on opportunities and outcomes for young people from less advantaged parts of our society. And these effects persist through the college application and admissions process, to endure into the adult lives of the young people affected. To create a more equitable society, and to ensure the kind of social mobility that Americans espouse, we need to address the disadvantages that poor families face at earlier stages of their life cycles.
For those applicants who took the SAT, did well on it, and applied to one of these selective institutions, family income and parental education, in and of themselves, had surprisingly little effect on admissions probabilities, on matriculation decisions, and even on later-life outcomes such as earnings and civic participation.... The effect [of SES on college attendance] occurs early on, in the years before college application, when "preparedness" is shaped through the persistent, cumulative development of cognitive skills; motivation, expectations, and other non-cognitive qualities; and practical knowledge about the college admissions process. (Bowen et al, 135)