Most Americans expect the nation's colleges and universities to promote the goal of social mobility to make it possible for anyone with ability and motivation to succeed. But according to Robert Haveman and Timothy Smeeding, income-related gaps both in access to and in success in higher education are large and growing. In the top-tier colleges and universities, almost three-quarters of the entering class is from the highest socioeconomic quartile. The pool of qualified youth is far greater than the number admitted and enrolled; hence America's top colleges could enroll more moderate- and low-income students without lowering their selection standards.
Higher-income parents make enormous efforts to ensure their children's academic success, while children of poor parents begin the "college education game" later and with fewer resources. Students in poor and minority neighborhoods are less well prepared academically; ill prepared to select colleges, apply for admission, and secure acceptance; and poorly informed about the cost of attending college and the availability of needs-based financial aid. Sharply rising college prices during the 1980s and 1990s, together with the growing inequality of family income, have raised the cost of attending college far more for low-income students than for well-to-do students. Financial aid has risen more slowly, and the share targeted on low-income students has been falling.
The authors offer bold policy recommendations to increase educational opportunities for low- and middle-income students. These involve the development of financing structures that will increase access for students from lower-income families. Public institutions could price tuition close to real costs and use added revenues to provide direct student aid for students from low-income families. Federal subsidies to students who attend wealthy institutions could be capped, with the savings redirected to students attending less well-endowed schools, both public and private. Finally, federal and state governments could redirect to lower-income students the financial support they now provide colleges and universities.