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Reviewed by:
  • Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students
  • Edward P. St. John
Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students edited by Donald E. Heller. ACE/Praeger Series on Higher Education. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2002. Cloth $34.95. ISBN 1-57356-517-2.

While it is unusual to refer to a new book as "historically important," Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students merits this distinction. To understand this claim, it is necessary to consider how this volume fits in the policy discourse on access. Indeed, it is necessary to take this step before summarizing the key points made in the volume.

The Condition of Access is comprised of essays written originally for the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, a Congressional panel, as background for their report Access Denied. When the Advisory Committee solicited these essays, the policy literature was dominated by official reports that focused on academic preparation as the explanation for the access gap for minority students (e.g., Choy, 2002; King, 1999; NCES, 1997a, b, 1998). This official literature consistently overlooked the direct effects of student aid while building a new rationale that argued for providing information to students about the steps they should take to prepare for college. During this unfortunate historical period (1980­2002), the official reports on academic preparation overlooked decades of economic research that found low-income students were responsive to tuition and student aid (Heller, 1997; Jackson & Weathersby, 1975; Leslie & Brinkman, 1988).

As a document comprised of essays written under federal contract, Condition of Access marks a change in the official literature on access. Heller's volume, along with the reports by the Advisory Committee of Student Financial Assistance (2001, 2002), reinserts finances into the discourse on college access in a way that acknowledges the central role academic preparation plays in college access. The economics literature had focused on finances, but had not adequately dealt with the need for a balanced approach to access. This review uses the new standard of balance—an explicit focus on financial access for low-income, college-prepared students (Advisory Committee, 2002; St. John, 2002)—as the primary criterion for reviewing this important book.

The two essays in Part I set the stage, illuminating the problem. First, Fitzgerald and Delaney describe how financial barriers are preventing millions of prepared students from attending college, costing the federal government billions of dollars in future tax revenues. Then Lee documents the high levels of unmet need for low-income students and points out that the decline in need-based grants could be a cause for the gap.

The three essays in Part II probe the complexity of the problem. Heller's chapter documents the new investment that states have made in merit grants and [End Page 472] raises concerns about increasing tuition. McPherson and Schapiro present their research on merit aid as the central focus of institutional aid. In the least effective chapter, Gladieux notes that the gap in enrollment has increased for low-income students, but overlooks how increases in inequality after 1980 coincided with the decline in federal need-based grants. He concludes that financial aid alone is "not enough" and ignores the inadequacy of student aid. Thus, Part II as a whole fails to make the direct link between the decline in federal need-based grants and the widening access gap after 1980. These authors were given a lob pitch—the set-up in part one—but failed to hit the home run. They clearly argue that need-based grants are important, but fail to critically examine the consequences of reductions in grants over the past two decades.

The two essays in Part III outline the need for outreach and support services for low-income students. These issues are important and, indeed, are necessary steps if we are to achieve greater equity once again. However, unless there is adequate need-based grant aid, encouragement can add to the ethos of discouragement that pervades children of the chronically poor in America.

The final two chapters speculate about the future. Carnevale and Fry review demographic trends and conclude that the equity challenge is getting greater. Finally, in the concluding essay, Spencer...


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