Income inequality in higher education

Income-diversity programs are a step in the right direction, but colleges can do more to reach out to low-income students.

Luis Ruuska

The country’s higher education industry has seen numerous efforts to remedy income inequality in higher education, though many of them have failed. It’s a daunting task, to say the least.

Nevertheless, President Barack Obama has tackled the issue head-on throughout his presidency. Obama increased Pell Grant funding and introduced the new “Pay-As-You-Earn” loan repayment option, in an effort to keep student loans affordable.

Evidently realizing that this is not a fight he can win alone, the president hosted leaders and representatives from 140 colleges, universities and other organizations at an education summit at the White House earlier this month. During the summit, Obama asked education leaders to make progress on combating income inequality in higher education.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler was in attendance and announced a new University initiative called Retaining all Our Students, set to be fully implemented by fall 2016.

The program’s targets are about 5,000 low-income University students who receive Pell Grants. About one in four University students enrolled were eligible for Pell Grants in the last school year.

Retaining all Our Students has four main objectives: enhancing financial literacy, creating a summer bridge program, enhancing academic advising and expanding peer tutoring for key courses.

The enhanced financial literacy part of the program is what Kaler believes “sets this new University of Minnesota initiative apart,” though no concrete details on what the program will include have been made available yet.

Retaining all Our Students and other initiatives like it represent a fundamental shift in how our culture defines diversity.

Our culture, particularly in the realm of higher education, has long been focused on diversity along racial, ethnic and gender lines, and rightfully so. But along the way, we seem to have dropped the ball when it comes to income-based diversity.

However, generating more income-based diversity is becoming increasingly crucial, as the American income gap’s rapid widening in recent decades is having a direct effect on who graduates from college and who doesn’t.

In 2011, University of Michigan assistant economics professor Martha Bailey found that while nearly 54 percent of students from high-income backgrounds earned bachelor’s degrees, only 9 percent of students of low-income backgrounds were able to do the same.

When we let these students fall through the cracks, we lose a chance to reverse these numbers and open higher education to other generations. Higher education has been the traditional vehicle for social mobility. If low-income students fail to graduate, then this notion is no longer a reality.

The goals of Retaining all Our Students are commendable and a step in the right direction in retaining current low-income students.

However, retaining low-income students is only part of the solution, and the other is recruiting them to begin with, which the University and many other public universities do not do because of need-blind admissions policies.

I will explore these issues next week.