Today the Wall Street Journal wrote an article entitled “Big Gap in College Graduation Rates for Rich and Poor, Study Finds.” The article is about the growing divide between wealthy students completing their degree and low-income students. It states:
In 2013, 77% of adults from families in the top income quartile earned at least bachelor’s degrees by the time they turned 24, up from 40% in 1970, according to a new report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. But 9% of people from the lowest income bracket did the same in 2013, up from 6% in 1970.
The narrative is telling a story about the struggle that low-income students have completing their degree. The author says, “about one in five college students from the lowest income bracket completed a bachelor’s degree by age 24 in 2013, about flat with the 1970 figure.” While that statistic may be true, I believe the author is telling the wrong story about education.
Rather then talking about college completion, how about talk about college enrollment? This year, the number of college applications reached near record highs; “at the top colleges, applications are rising at astronomical rates. Princeton University received just under 27,000 applications for the Class of 2019, the second-largest amount in its history,” according to this article. But who are these applicants? According to the WSJ article, this has been a point of progress – “One small sign of progress is that more poor students are enrolling in college than they did 40 years ago. Forty-five percent of dependent 18- to 24-year-olds from the lowest income quartile—with family income of $34,160 or less—enrolled in college in 2012, up from 28% in 1970.” However, couldn’t that be explained by the fact that the total number of applicants has risen?
In reality, there are actually a lot of factors dissuading low-income students from even applying. The first of which are application fees – the average college application fee is $41, with the top schools charging $75 or more. That means that just applying to college is a costly endeavor, let alone the cost of actually attending. Because of these fees, it makes it difficult for low-income students to send out a ton of applications. In an environment where colleges boast about low acceptance rates, it is important for applicants to apply to many places, which is clearly advantageous for wealthier applicants.
While graduation is certainly an important component, I believe the problem begins much earlier in the process. Low-income students should be incentivized to apply to college, not the other way around.