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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Higher Education Access: Filling in the Cracks versus Rebuilding the Foundation

Accessing the American College Dream

There is a persistent and aspirational narrative in the United States that no matter what circumstances one was born into, college can be the great equalizer of opportunity. Imbued within this narrative are two main beliefs. The first is that the United States is a meritocracy where the cream will always rise to the top. The second is that education alone can serve as the panacea for social inequality.

This narrative imagines that the higher education system will reward smart, hard-working students regardless of any history of poverty, racism, sexism, redlining, or other forms of prejudice and exclusion. This assumption ignores the fact that unfettered access to colleges and universities is a recent development following centuries of discrimination in K–12 education and especially within postsecondary institutions.[1],[2] In response, college-access programs have sought to address this fundamental inequality by increasing the diversity of students entering higher education.

However, confidence in college as a gateway to the American Dream is diminishing. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows that most Americans do not believe higher education is headed in the right direction. Their reasons for dissatisfaction vary along political party lines, but there is consensus around concerns of costs and job prospects.[3] Still, by 2020, it is estimated that 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education, compared to 28 percent in 1973.[4] Furthermore, the income share of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 37 percent in 1991 to 50 percent in 2012.[5] Having a college degree will only matter more and more in the coming years.

Congress is supposed to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965 every five years but has failed to do so since 2008. This presents an opportunity to make sure the next reauthorization makes the spirit of the law a reality. Policy makers must implement both punitive and rewarding structures that get institutions to act to close the equity gap. Only by dealing directly and deeply with the various sources of disillusionment around the American College Dream can we ever hope to make it as good as its promise.

Discrimination and Pernicious Narratives

The myth of the American College Dream is an inviting narrative that does not demand institutional culpability nor collective reparations. It suggests there were no authors of inequality and that there is no need to take a careful look through the private- and public-policy failures that led us here.

Education nonprofits and college-access organizations often solicit and sell the stories of “broken” students set straight by their interventions. The wayward child whose surroundings and family were not good enough to put him or her on the right path if not for the vision of these organizations. These stories do nothing to repair these “broken” communities and, in many ways, tacitly support the social system that produced such entrenched inequity. Instead, there is a tragic irony that by recruiting more marginalized students who are perceived as the “cream,” we become more complacent in efforts that address the entire “crop.”

This does not discount the excellent work that cohort programs like Posse and QuestBridge do for bright young students who might otherwise slip through the cracks by connecting them to top-ranked college partners who provide academic guidance, social support, and generous financial aid packages to those admitted.[6],[7] Nor does it discount organizations like the College Advising Corps, which attempts to engage the entire student body with its near-peer model that hires recent graduates as advisers who look and speak more like the students they serve.[8] However, we rely upon the same pernicious narratives to solicit donor dollars and media attention.

The cracks in the college-access system cannot be repaired without fundamentally transforming the discussions we have. Otherwise, we will continue to misunderstand the purpose, implementation, and beneficiaries of affirmative action. We will use stereotypes of Asian students to justify the status quo while failing to treat them as more than a monolith. We will continue to legislate in the court of public opinion campus culture wars about who belongs and whose voice gets to be heard or silenced. We will reproduce an inequitable societal orientation only with a somewhat more diverse face.

Understanding where we must go requires intimate knowledge of where we are. Any comprehensive solution to our college-access problems must detail and confront systemic issues directly. Only then can we implement the structural change necessary to remedy the flawed foundation.


Current Barriers and Challenges

 School Funding

Nearly half of funding for public K–12 schools is local, typically coming from property taxes. State funding—which is often the most equitable—makes up 47 percent, and federal funds are less than 10 percent.[9] Even when cost of living is adjusted for, some states fund K–12 education at half the rate of others with large district-level disparities.[10],[11] Thus, factors that students have no control over, like neighborhood property values and state budget cuts (which have significantly worsened since the Great Recession), result in increased class sizes, fewer support services, and delayed implementation of reforms that would improve college admission and persistence. As schools are forced to rely more on inherently inequitable local taxes, school funding continues to be one of the greatest sources of inequality in college access in the United States.

Budget cuts invariably affect state colleges and universities and have led to higher prices, fewer academic opportunities, and increased admission of out-of-state and international students who pay higher tuitions.[12] Predictably, marginalized students, who attend in-state schools at higher rates, are most likely to suffer the consequences of public college funding remaining $9 billion below 2008 levels (adjusted for inflation).[13],[14]



The short- and long-term costs of attendance are crucial determinants in who attends and graduates from college. Tuition is increasing faster than income gains or inflation, and student-debt burden has doubled since 2009 to nearly $1.5 trillion.[15],[16],[17] Student loans, which most low-income students rely upon, cannot be forgiven upon bankruptcy. So when public universities’ fees are equivalent to 77 percent of low-income families’ annual earnings, it is unsurprising that many first-generation students are discouraged by these prices.[18]

Additionally, application and enrollment expenses are underestimated barriers for first-generation and poorer students. They must navigate complicated fee-waiver processes to avoid the costs of taking required standardized tests, applying to multiple colleges, and submitting enrollment and housing deposits—which can be thousands of dollars.[19] This contributes to students “undermatching”—not applying to or attending universities they are academically ready for—and ending up at schools with worse outcomes.[20]

Sadly, federal plans to help college graduates are in disrepair. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is meant to incentivize graduates to pursue lower-paying public interest work, yet it has rejected 99 percent of forgiveness requests.[21] Also, the Office for Student and Young Borrowers within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which focused on protecting citizens from predatory student loans, was limited in 2018.[22] Grassroot organizations like Rolling Jubilee buy and cancel defaulted student loan debt for pennies on the dollar using the same financial instruments typically used to collect these debts, but this is far from a comprehensive solution.[23]

The spiraling costs to attend college and reduced loan assistance are national embarrassments. We are senselessly limiting the potential of our economy and discouraging the students who could benefit most from a university education from ever applying.[24]


How We Evaluate Students

Not all students deserving and capable of excellent education will demonstrate their ability through stellar GPAs and perfect SAT/ACT scores. It is all too easy to use these numbers as shorthand indicators of future academic and professional success. Yet, it is impossible to pretend that these metrics perfectly assess students’ capabilities when standardized test scores are nearly perfectly correlated with family income and imbalanced school funding allows richer communities to recruit higher-quality teachers.[25] Wealthier students can also afford advantages that significantly increase test scores, like re-taking the SAT or hiring private college tutors.[26]

Particularly, the increasingly competitive market for highly selective schools has encouraged students and school administrators to sometimes employ unethical practices. There is a lurid market for the sob story (e.g., “from homeless to Harvard”), where the imagery of damage and deficiency often plays well with college administrators.[27] This leads many marginalized students to believe they must emphasize their trauma over their talents to be admitted and negatively affects their likelihood to apply to college and persist.[28]

It is a racket that wealthier students and schools also take part in, ironically fearing that their privileged lives will be a hurdle to elite college admission. This leads to fabricated extracurricular activities, grade inflation, and exaggerated claims of hardships.[29],[30]

Inequitable Access and Outcomes

Admirably, there has been an increased focus on first-generation student admission and support programs in recent years.[31] Many of the nation’s most selective institutions have made important strides, but it is still common to find more students from the top 1 percent income bracket at these schools than from the bottom 60 percent.[32] Most first-generation students will attend state universities close to home for financial, academic, and social reasons. Their outcomes lag behind their counterparts whose parents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.[33] One leading explanation is that the culture shock first-generation students experience on campus and the emphasis US universities place on individuality and independence fail to provide these students with the support structure they deserve to succeed.[34]

Furthermore, reporting from ProPublica shows there is not a single state where Black or Hispanic students are as likely as their White peers to be enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, considered gifted, or measured in several other indicators that directly lead to college attendance.[35]

Additional racial disparities are seen in discipline. Compared to their White counterparts, Black students are four times more likely to be suspended—11 times more likely in Washington, DC—and Hispanic students are less likely to be suspended in only four states. Suspended or expelled students then fall behind academically, have higher dropout rates, and are more likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system.[36] Furthermore, school districts that serve the most Black and Hispanic students also have the lowest-paid and most inexperienced teachers.[37]

These gaps developed over generations, and meaningfully and sustainably repairing them will require a deep commitment to equity. This can only be accomplished by candidly addressing root causes.


Directions for the Future

Making our colleges and universities the engines powering a new American Dream requires laying down early investments throughout our K–12 education system. This includes changes to how we fund schools, make college affordable, evaluate students, and assist students in exploring their postsecondary options.

School Funding

Funding schools equitably within states is a baseline requirement. If necessary, new state and federal legislation should be enacted to ensure equitable funding. Equity mandates that public funding close the gap that property taxes create. Of course, spending more money does not guarantee proportionally better outcomes, and close attention must be paid to where those dollars are allocated and what effects they have on student achievement.[38]

This increased funding should be used to employ more diverse and culturally competent education-sector workers. Students of color select lower-paying majors for reasons that range from underinvestment in the years leading up to admission to discouragement upon arrival at a college campus.[39] Research regularly demonstrates that students perform better when learning from educators who share their identities—particularly boys, African Americans, and low-income students—with no detrimental effects on more privileged populations.[40] Yet, just 18 percent are teachers of color, and only 2 percent are Black men.[41] Promoting and hiring more ethnic minorities in decision-making roles in K–12 can ensure that more students of color are appropriately placed on college preparatory tracks.

Additionally, states absolutely must appropriate more funding for colleges to reduce costs of attendance, which is critical to expanding college access.



In an ideal world, college would be tuition free. Meanwhile, universities must expand creative payment methods so that costs do not continue to crowd out lower-income students. Income-share agreements, a method where students pay back a fixed percentage of their post-graduation salary in exchange for low or no up-front costs, have been piloted at schools like Purdue University. These programs incentivize equitable student outcomes as universities depend on their students earning enough to recoup their investment over a set period (typically ten years).

Abolishing for-profit colleges is another piece of the puzzle. These schools disproportionately enroll low-income and ethnic-minority students while producing the worst student outcomes.[42] Obama-era regulations were a step in the right direction, but too many students still fall victim to the for-profit below-average income/above-average debt trap.[43] There is no reason to continue spending billions in federal funds on these schools when we could invest that money elsewhere.[44]

Relatedly, forcing significantly underperforming institutions to cover students’ debt would be a powerful motivator. Schools that saddle their students with debt and a low-quality education need to re-pay any federal loans they took advantage of and compensate enrollees. As precedent, recently, Career Education, a for-profit college syndicate, forgave $556 million in student debt amid mounting legal pressure.[45] Priority should be given to those earning below-average income with child dependents and disabilities.


How We Evaluate Students

In theory, the college application process evaluates students fairly and comprehensively, but it regularly fails to do so in practice. States and colleges can streamline the process by working with high schools to aggregate and electronically submit all data necessary to apply and enroll with student permission. This includes transcripts, test scores, and any other bureaucratic burden that prevents capable students from ultimately enrolling. The ACT and College Board—provider of the SAT—reduced certain costs for low-income students in 2018, but they still serve as private gatekeepers to college access.[46]

Universities also must decrease emphasis on SAT/ACT scores. These results should only be used as pieces in the intricate puzzle that makes up an aspiring applicant to an institution. The growing number of schools, like the University of Chicago, that are making standardized tests optional and evaluating more non-academic factors (e.g., self-discipline or grit) related to student ability are moving in the right direction.[47],[48] Early findings suggest that these policies increase diversity in applicants and do not negatively affect graduation rates.[49]

Inequitable Access and Outcomes

Correcting decades of inequality requires deeply integrative approaches, and schools need to use relevant data to implement innovative interventions throughout a student’s career. Longitudinal data tracking and sharing across stakeholders can align efforts, prevent redundancies, and increase the efficacy of targeted engagement by college advisers, guidance counselors, and teachers. Over 40 states have some sort of system, but there is much room for improvement.[50] Equitable college access necessitates having well-trained, culturally competent professionals assisting students. Research has shown that both information and assistance are necessary to boost important determinants like financial aid and retention.[51]

We must encourage students to fully explore their postsecondary options, and de-stigmatizing and investing in community colleges is the best place to start. These institutions need to be a college-access priority as they serve nearly half of US undergraduates and an increasingly large share of low-income, ethnic-minority, and marginalized students.[52],[53] Attending a two-year college before transferring saves money and improves chances of admission at many universities. Additionally, community college transfers have been demonstrated to perform at similar or higher levels than high school and four-year university transfer students.[54]

Lastly, policy makers should create more “second-chance pathways” to empower those who elected not to attend college immediately after high school or dropped out. These pathways could build upon the template of a nonprofit like Year Up, which provides urban 18–24 year olds without college experience with intensive career education, social support, and job placement over a 12-month span at no cost to the student. Students who completed Year Up saw a 50 percent increase in their incomes, and many maintained career and social support after their program.[55]

Concluding Thoughts

The American College Dream can only become a reality when students truly feel they belong and are deserving of higher education. Identity, income, and geography should not prevent anyone from pursuing the type of education they are willing to work to attain.

In the past, the United States subsidized the growth of the middle class and provided social welfare along discriminatory lines.[56],[57] It is this knowledge of where we have erred that allows us to conscientiously work towards re-appropriating the resources necessary to make college access a truly equitable endeavor for all.

However, when we talk about equity and access, we cannot be content with simply getting students to the door of these institutions and hoping inequality will resolve itself. We must also ensure not just that they walk out the other side with a degree and a meaningful experience but also that they step into a society that has undertaken a comprehensive approach to equitable success.

This should not be misunderstood as a call for governmental or private-industry paternalism. Rather, it is an alignment of interests that removes impediments to student success and self-determination. The path forward is not easy, but the direction is clear. There only remains the question of whether we will have the political and moral courage to do what is right.

Let us build the comprehensive system we and our children deserve. Let us make the foundation of the future a fair one.

Edited by: Steven Olender

Photo by: College of DuPage, Flikr

[1] Linda Darling-Hammond, “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education,” Brookings Institution, 1 March 1998,

[2] Ann Sutherland Harris, “‘The Higher, the Fewer’: Discrimination Against Women in Academia,” n.d.,

[3] Anna Brown, “Most Americans say higher ed is heading in the wrong direction, but partisans disagree on why,” Pew Research Center, 26 July 2018,

[4] Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020,” Center on Education and the Workforce, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, 27 June 2013,

[5] Richard Fry, “The growing economic clout of the college educated,” Pew Research Center, 24 September 2013,

[6] “About Posse,” The Posse Foundation, n.d.,

[7] “About,” QuestBridge, n.d.,

[8] Eileen L. Horng et al., “Lessons learned from a data-driven college access program: The National College Advising Corps,” New Directions for Youth Development 2013, no. 140 (2013): 55–75.

[9] Michael Leachman, Kathleen Masterson, and Eric Figueroa, “A Punishing Decade for School Funding,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 29 November 2017,

[10] Bruce J. Biddle and David C. Berliner, “Unequal School Funding in the United States,” Educational Leadership 59, no. 8 (2002): 48–59.

[11] “Education Spending Per Student by State,” Governing, last updated 1 June 2018,

[12] Michael Mitchell, Michael Leachman, and Kathleen Masterson, “A Lost Decade in Higher Education Funding,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 23 August 2017,

[13] Michael Mitchell, Michael Leachman, and Kathleen Masterson, “Funding Down, Tuition Up,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 15 August 2016,

[14] Mitchell, Leachman, and Masterson, “Funding Down, Tuition Up.”

[15] Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender, and CJ Libassi, Trends in College Pricing 2018, The College Board, October 2018,

[16] Anthony Cilluffo, “5 facts about student loans,” Pew Research Center, 24 August 2017,

[17] Alexandre Tanzi, “U.S. Student Loan Debt Sets Record, Doubling Since Recession,” Bloomberg, 17 December 2018,

[18] “Percent of Family Income Needed to Pay for College – by Type of Institution,” The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, 2019,

[19] Christopher Avery, Jessica S. Howell, and Lindsay Page, “A Review of the Role of College Applications on Students’ Postsecondary Outcomes. Research Brief,” ERIC, October 2014,

[20] Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery, “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students” (working paper 18586, National Bureau of Economic Research [NBER], December 2012).

[21] Ari Shapiro and Cory Turner, “Data Shows 99% Of Applicants For A Student Loan Forgiveness Program Were Denied,” All Things Considered [podcast], NPR, 21 September 2018,

[22] Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “Mick Mulvaney takes aim at consumer bureau’s student protection unit,” The Washington Post, 9 May 2018,

[23] Siona Peterous, “How Activists Are Moving the Dial on Student Loan Debt,” Common Dreams, 24 December 2018,

[24] Zachary Bleemer et al., “Echoes of Rising Tuition in Students’ Borrowing, Educational Attainment, and Homeownership in Post-Recession America,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, July 2017,

[25] Zachary A. Goldfarb, “These four charts show how the SAT favors rich, educated families,” The Washington Post, 5 March 2014,

[26] Paul Montgomery and Jane Lilly, “Systematic reviews of the effects of preparatory courses on university entrance examinations in high school-age students,” International Journal of Social Welfare 21, no. 1 (2012): 3–12.

[27] Erica L. Green and Katie Benner, “Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality.” The New York Times, 30 November 2018,

[28] Ira Glass and Mariya Karimjee, “Essay B,” This American Life [podcast], 14 December 2017,

[29] Anemona Hartocollis, “‘They’re Not Fact-Checking’: How Lies on College Applications Can Slip Through the Net,” The New York Times, 16 December 2018,

[30] Seth Gershenson, “Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005–2016),” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 19 September 2018,

[31] Julia Piper, “New Roles Focus on First-Generation Students’ Issues,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 October 2018,

[32] Gregor Aisch et al., “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.,” The New York Times, 18 January 2017,

[33] Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, “First in My Family: A Profile of First-Generation College Students at Four-Year Institutions Since May 1971,” Center for First-Generation Student Success, May 2007,

[34] Nicole M. Stephens et al., “Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 6 (2012): 1178–97.

[35] Lena V. Groeger, Annie Waldman, and David Eads, “Miseducation: Is There Racial Inequality at Your School?” ProPublica, 16 October 2018,

[36] Michael Harris, “New National Data Shows Racial Disparities in School Discipline,” National Center for Youth Law, n.d.,

[37] Harris, “New National Data Shows Racial Disparities in School Discipline.”

[38] Daarel Burnette II, “Equity in K-12 Funding More Complex Than Just Dollars,” Education Week, 6 June 2018,

[39] Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “Racial disparities in college major selection exacerbate earnings gap,” The Washington Post, 16 September 2015,

[40] Claire Cain Miller, “Does Teacher Diversity Matter in Student Learning?,” The New York Times, 10 September 2018,

[41] Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections From Black Teachers,” The Education Trust, 3 November 2016,

[42] Peter Smith and Leslie Parrish, “Do Students of Color Profit From For-Profit College? Poor Outcomes and High Debt Hamper Attendees’ Futures,” Higher Ed, Not Debt, 15 October 2014,

[43] “Obama Administration Announces Final Rules to Protect Students from Poor-Performing Career College Programs,” US Department of Education, 30 October 2014,

[44] Luis Armona, Rajashri Chakrabarti, and Michael F. Lovenheim, “How Does For-profit College Attendance Affect Student Loans, Defaults and Labor Market Outcomes?” (working paper 25042, NBER, September 2018).

[45] Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “For-Profit College Chain to Forgive $556 Million in Student Debts,” The Washington Post, 3 January 2019,

[46] Eric Hoover, “ACT and College Board to Offer Free Test-Score Reports for Needy Students,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 December 2017,

[47] “More Than 1000 Accredited Colleges and Universities That Do Not Use ACT/SAT Scores to Admit Substantial Numbers of Students Into Bachelor-Degree Programs,” FairTest, 2019,

[48] Amanda Sommerfeld, “Recasting Non-Cognitive Factors in College Readiness as What They Truly Are: Non-Academic Factors” Journal of College Admission, no. 213 (2011): 18–22.

[49] “Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works,” National Association for College Admission Counseling, n.d.,–publications/Research/Defining-Access/.

[50] Jacob Jackson, “One Step Closer to a Statewide Educational Data System,” Public Policy Institute of California, 17 January 2019,

[51] Eric P. Bettinger et al., “The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block Fafsa Experiment,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, no. 3 (2012): 1205–42.

[52] Ashley A. Smith, “No Bottom Yet in 2-Year College Enrollments,” Inside Higher Ed, 21 June 2018,

[53] Amanda O. Latz et al., “Student Affairs Professionals in the Community College: Critically Examining Preparation Programs From a Social Justice Lens,” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 41, no. 11 (2017): 733–46.

[54] Jennifer Glynn, “Persistence: The Success of Students Who Transfer from Community Colleges to Selective Four-Year Institutions,” Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, January 2019,

[55] David Fein and Jill Hamadyk, Bridging the Opportunity Divide for Low-Income Youth: Implementation and Early Impacts of the Year Up Program, Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education, May 2018, report #2018-65, Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation.

[56] “Banks Continue to Deny Home Loans to People of Color,” Equal Justice Initiative, 19 February 2018,

[57] Robert A. Moffitt, “The Deserving Poor, the Family, and the U.S. Welfare System,” Demography 52, no. 3 (2015): 729–49.