Inequality & Access to Higher Education Research Paper Starter

Inequality & Access to Higher Education

(Research Starters)

While the United States offers a diverse array of options for postsecondary education, not all students find that the system is equally accessible. The factors that influence college access are complex and have varied over time. However, there is a consistently strong connection between socioeconomic status and one's ability to gain admission to a college or university. Programs to improve accessibility have been successful to a point, but obstacles still exist in a society where college is an option for all. This article reviews the sociological and educational research on higher education accessibility.

Keywords Affirmative Action; Allocation Theories; Civil Rights Movement; College Access; Community College; Financial Aid; G.I. Bill; Habitus; Socialization Theories; Socioeconomic Status (SES)



In the U.S., there are thousands of institutions of higher learning including public and private four-year colleges and universities, two-year community colleges and a plethora of trade and technical schools. These schools provide a rich array of options for students who want to pursue post-secondary education. However, despite the many options available, not all students who would like to attend college do so, and not all students are able to matriculate at the college of their first choice. Why is this the case? What are the factors that make college inaccessible for some, and how does institutional selectivity reflect or perpetuate societal inequalities? These are some of the questions that sociological and educational researchers examine when investigating the topic of inequality and access to higher education.

What Are the Variables?

The answers to these questions, like all questions related to human-oriented fields, are complex and vary over time. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to identify one factor or set of factors that always determines whether someone gets into college or is denied an academic slot. Rather, researchers recognize that individual, organizational and macrolevel conditions are all potentially positive or negative factors influencing whether students matriculate. In a meta-analysis of 114 articles published in six major sociological and education journals over 31 years, McDonough and Fann (2007) identified the most common variables investigators have looked at when exploring college access. At the individual level, researchers study race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, culture, family, community, student status, peers and geography. Organizational factors are those that cause schools to produce environments supporting college attendance. Studies in this category examine high school policies and procedures, curricula, the influence of high school counselors and teachers, and availability and quality of outreach programs. Finally, field level studies explore the sociopolitical climate and include such items as federal and state level policies around financial aid, affirmative action, and accountability. These studies also look at how the media, professional organizations and public and private institutions influence one another and in turn, student behavior.

The Influence of Socioeconomic Status

Of all of these factors, the one that consistently seems to impact college attendance is socioeconomic status (SES). Socioeconomic status is often classified according to two criteria: parents' income and parents' level of education. In general, the higher the level of parental income and education, the more likely it is that their children will attend college. From a financial perspective, it might seem like common sense that since college tuition is relatively expensive, those families with better jobs (as a result of education) and more money would be able to pay the costs of college. But the impact of socioeconomic status is more complex, beginning with lifestyle choices that more educated parents make from the time their children are born. To name just a few: parents with higher SES generally choose to live in communities with schools that promote high academic standards at the elementary, middle and high school levels. These schools are more likely to be staffed with highly qualified teachers and counselors and are more likely to have a climate that assumes children will attend college. Since attending schools that have a strong college preparatory curriculum is often cited as a factor supporting college attendance, high SES parents use their economic means to place their children in an environment favoring educational achievement.

But educated parents do not leave the business of getting to college to the schools alone. Because these parents are familiar with the steps required to apply for admissions, they are more likely to help children directly by discussing college options and career goals and by saving money early. These behaviors tend to encourage their children to have better attitudes about education, to attain better academic skills and test scores and to be more successful when they apply. On the flip side, in communities where few parents have attended college and incomes are lower, children may not be given as many opportunities to learn about higher education. Although schools may be staffed with quality teachers and counselors, perceptions and attitudes towards education and the opportunities for children achieve it may be negatively affected by class-based perceptions that college is unnecessary, or unattainable because of costs.


Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes this social-psychological factor as a product of habitus. Habitus is defined as "a common set of subjective, internalized, class-based perceptions that shape an individual's expectations, attitudes and aspirations in a non-rational, unconscious way" (McDonough & Calderone, 2006, p. 1704). In short, when individuals expect a negative outcome, they may produce behaviors that create a negative outcome.

Examples of the kinds of behaviors that occur in a climate where college attendance is not expected can be witnessed in the advice counselors sometimes provide to low-income or minority students. For example, counselors may steer students into non-academic tracks because they do not view them as college-worthy, or they may encourage students to apply to community college instead of a four-year private or public university because they have predetermined that four-year tuition would be beyond the student's means (Corwin, Venegas, Oliveraz, & Colyar, 2004; McDonough & Calderone, 2006; McDonough & Fann, 2007). The impact of a non-college climate can also affect individual student aspirations. Stanton, Salazar and Dornbusch note that when students in such a climate do not have access to information about college and when they perceive discrimination, they are likely to eliminate themselves from the college application process (as cited in Corwin, et. al., 2004).

Further Insights

As an antidote to barriers such as those mentioned above, a number of federal policies and interventions have been implemented over time. Three of these major interventions include federal financial aid, the establishment of community colleges, and affirmative action programs.

Financial Aid

One of the first major financial aid programs was implemented following World War II. The 1944 Serviceman's Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill, granted funds for postsecondary education to soldiers returning from the war. The program dramatically increased the number of first generation college attendees and has been credited, along with the other programs, with contributing to one of the greatest expansions of higher education access in American history (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2006).

Current Trends

The effectiveness of financial aid has been reduced by a number of trends and in some cases, has itself been found to be a barrier to college access. The first trend is that states, in the twenty-first century, have reduced funding for higher education. This has been driven in part by the simultaneous rise in health care costs. In order to cover the shortfall from state funding, universities and colleges have raised tuition. However, allocations of money to federal financial aid programs have remained relatively flat. Thus, students are facing higher costs without a comparable increase in financial aid (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2006). The result is that more students, especially low-income students, have unmet financial aid needs, and more students are graduating with high levels of debt. As perceptions grow that college is unaffordable, more students are choosing not...

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