Higher Education Access and the Reproduction of Privilege

By Lisa R. Pruitt

Two recent items in the New York Times have caught my attention in relation to how access to higher education reproduces privilege and undermines class mobility.  One is “Cuts Threaten Access to College Placement Tests,” for which a summary follows:

As part of the federal budget agreement last December, Congress cut federal financing for programs that offer advanced high school courses to slightly under $27 million, from $43 million the previous year, with only about $20 million to be used to subsidize low-income students’ exam fees.  So, in recent weeks, state education officials have been notifying high schools that low-income students, who have for decades been eligible for fee waivers,  will have to pay $15 for each of the first three exams they take, and $53 per exam for any beyond that.

Needless to say, this federal cut is sure to decrease the AP credits that low-income students are able to rack up, thereby increasing their college costs and perhaps also deterring them from seeking higher education.

The other recent item is Thomas Edsall’s post titled “The Reproduction of Privilege” on the New York Times Campaign Stops blog.   This excerpt sums up the phenomenon Edsall wishes to highlight–that higher education is no longer the path to class mobility that it once was.  Rather, higher education–particularly at top institutions–is more often the preserve of the well off, dominated by the children of those who have already arrived socioeconomically:

Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification, with a huge majority of the 24 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 currently holding a bachelor’s degree coming from families with earnings above the median income.

Seventy-four percent of those now attending colleges that are classified as “most competitive,” a group that includes schools like Harvard, Emory, Stanford and Notre Dame, come from families with earnings in the top income quartile, while only three percent come from families in the bottom quartile.

Edsall’s piece is chock full of additional data that all flies in the face of “the American dream” of class mobility, revealing it to be more myth than reality.

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