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The Growing College Gap

The Atlantic magazine reported this week on a new study exploring how family income affects whether and where students attend and complete college.  While the results may not surprise us, they are very disturbing.  The study divided American households into four income groups.  The top two groups accounted for 77 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014, up from 72 percent in 1970.  Students from the lowest quartile represented only 10 percent of all the degrees awarded.  Completion rates vary considerably based on family income as well.  Among top income households, 60 percent of students graduated within ten years of finishing high school.  That was four times higher than students from the lowest quarter of households.

Income is a strong determining factor not only in whether a young person graduates from college, but also where.  Nearly 70 percent of students in the nation’s most selective colleges are from the top economic quartile; Meanwhile, students eligible for federal grants due to their families’ low income were three times as likely to attend for-profit institutions which also have far lower graduation rates than public four-year schools.

Researchers for this report from the University of Pennsylvania summarize the findings:  “Differences in enrollment patterns by family income reflect the stratification of the financial, academic, and other resources that are required to enroll in different colleges and universities.  Students from higher-income families have the resources that enable meaningful choices from among the array of options nationwide.”  They conclude, “Resource constraints and structural failures often limit the ‘choices’ of students from lower-income families to local or online, non-selective or for-profit postsecondary education.”

Whether and where people attend college makes a difference, perpetuating and exacerbating the growing income and opportunity disparities in this country.  A portrait of the college history of America’s elite political class, while non-scientific, is revealing.  President Obama went to Columbia.  Harvard, Stanford, and Yale account for a disproportionate 36 members of Congress.  Of the eight current Supreme Court justices, three went to Princeton, one to Cornell, one to Harvard, and one to Stanford, and all went either to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia law schools.  Among our surviving (some barely!) presidential candidates, only John Kasich went to a public university – The Ohio State University – while the remaining call Wellesley, Princeton, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania alma mater.

It was hard not to reflect on these realities during a rally to save Chicago State University that Lydia and I attended this week at a south side Chicago church.  Chicago State won a short term reprieve from closure due to a special appropriation from the state legislature currently caught in a fiscal impasse with the governor.  The emergency funding will get CSU through the summer and avert an immediate shut-down, something none of the afore-mentioned schools have to worry about.  After September the future remains bleak.  Over the last twenty years CSU has graduated more African American students each year than any other university – public or private – in the state of Illinois.  Faculty members engage not just in traditional teaching and scholarship, but in supporting ill prepared students from challenging households succeed.  Tuition is $10,000 to $12,000 a year making it far more affordable than other options.  As legendary civil rights attorney Thomas Todd said, “If banks are too big to fail, Chicago State is too important to lose.”

And yet these are the very schools facing massive public disinvestment.  If Chicago State closes, many, if not most of the current student body will not re-enroll anywhere else and, if they do, it most certainly will not be because the schools of our presidential candidates offer them an academic haven.  The ripple effects will also be devastating.  Chicago State has historically graduated a high percentage of the school teachers, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and business people working in the south sides’ underserved neighborhoods.  And it is a significant employer for the community already staggering under economic strains. 

In June I will be attending Lydia’s Wellesley College reunion where the reports of class gifts announced on the final day of the weekend number in the tens of millions.  Good for Wellesley.  It is a wonderful school.  But we’ll also be thinking about Chicago State that day, and the many Chicago States around the country who struggle to survive by begging for funds in an increasingly mean-spirited political environment and who heroically educate those the elite schools mostly leave behind.  If Hillary becomes our next president she’ll be the first president educated at an elite women’s college, another star in Wellesley’s crown and a refreshing change of pace from the long line of male ivy leaguers among her predecessors.  Yet the true measure of her presidency will not be how well she burnishes Wellesley’s reputation, but how determined she will be to keep Chicago State alive.

            John H. Thomas

            April 28, 2016


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