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Elisabeth Mason Headshot

College Enrollment: Thick Envelope v. Thick Wallet

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It used to be the difference between a thick envelope and a thin envelope.

That was how you could tell if you were college-bound. Thick envelopes meant it was time to celebrate and created that moment of clarity, when it seemed as though all your dreams were within reach.

Times have changed. Gone are the thick envelopes. Now students log in and find out if a school accepted them with a few clicks. But the bigger change is acceptance is not the happy end to the high school chapter of a student's life. There are obstacles between "congratulations, you're in" and "congratulations, Graduate." And they do not apply equally to everyone.

Low-income high school graduates of all races face the toughest odds of completing a college degree. Only 52 percent of low-income high school graduates even enroll in college, compared to 80 percent of high-income. So it should be no surprise that kids from the top fifth of the income ladder are seven times more likely to graduate college than those from the bottom.

I have often heard people say that this is just educational Darwinism at work -- that students who lack the drive or the smarts are the ones who do not complete their degrees. If you think that's bogus, you're right. As Paul Tough recently reported in New York Times Magazine:

"When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability... If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents' income, not their test scores."

The growth in income inequality across the country is epidemic. It puts the American Dream out of reach for millions of Americans and now it is pre-empting it for the next generation.

Ben Franklin said "an investment in knowledge pays the best interest." If so, we're depriving millions of talented Americans -- and our posterity -- of a profitable investment, simply because of their income bracket. There could hardly be anything more un-American.

While enrolling in college may no longer be heralded by a thick or thin envelope; finishing college increasingly depends on whether you have a thick or thin wallet. I think this bears repeating because it is so antithetical to our view of ourselves as a nation. Again, ability is not the biggest factor in college graduation rates, income is.

Americans secured three generations of unparalleled prosperity and economic dominance on the foundation of affordable higher education for everyone who could make the grade. If we can no longer hold out that promise to our citizens and immigrants who come to America because it is the land of opportunities, we deserve to fade as a global leader.

We must find a way back to affordable higher education, or risk dismissing the American promise; if you work hard you can do anything. Granted, it used to be easier to figure out how to secure funding. The GI Bill was a massive source of educational opportunity to a population that no one could argue was undeserving. And Americans accepted a much higher tax burden (91 percent in the top marginal rate through the Eisenhower years; 70 percent up until Reagan) to fund all manner of programs.

Nonetheless, even in today's more polarized political climate, there are a number of chronically under-used resources that could readily help stabilize college drop-out rates. Think about food aid, for starters.

Al Gore compares our reaction to the climate change crisis to that of a frog in a pot of steadily warming water. The frog doesn't notice the water is heating up and slowly boils to death.

We are doing the same in higher education. Pretty soon, college will largely be for the wealthy. We will have undone 70 years of progress and returned to a new Gilded Age, where the talented but unmonied have little chance of academic or white-collar professional success. Is that really where we want to go?