Public universities growing less accessible, more unaffordable for underserved students

Two new reports find that public universities are becoming less affordable and less accessible to low-income students and students of color, Inside Higher Ed reports.

In the first report, New America finds that more than half of the 584 public universities studied require first-year students with the greatest need to pay upwards of $10,000, more than a third of their family income. The researchers attribute the shift to two trends: public colleges’ enrollment of more international and out-of-state students—a tactic designed to mitigate state budget cuts that often comes at the expense of low-income, in-state students; and the schools’ chase of U.S. News & World Report rankings by prioritizing students with higher standardized test scores and GPAs, attributes often associated with higher-income students who can afford academic tutors and test prep.

“More and more we have a two-tiered system where low-income students go to community colleges and for-profits,” wrote Stephen Burd, report author at New America. “We believe a public, four-year higher education should be accessible and affordable for all.”

Related: UVA announces tuition-free plan for lower-income in-state students >

In the second study, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) examined six flagship universities in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin found that enrollment rates of low-income students, Black students, and Latino students are not commensurate with the state’s demographic changes, reports Education Dive. “In fact, the access gap for Black students is widening at some flagships,” writes IHEP, adding that “students of color and low-income students are still less likely to earn degrees” than white and higher-income students.

Zero-sum game

Increasing test scores and enrollment of out-of-state students suggests that schools are not prioritizing the educational development of in-state students, the IHEP researchers conclude. Similarly, New America’s Burd notes that, since the late 1990s, more than half of schools simultaneously increased the student population in the top 20 percent of income levels and reduced the proportion of students from the bottom 40 percent of income levels. This means that at these schools, the increase in wealthy students “came at the direct expense of low-income ones.”

To improve student outcomes, IHEP recommends “prioritizing need-based aid and eliminating early decision admissions, legacy preferences, and consideration of a students’ demonstrated interest or previous interactions with the criminal justice system.”

“Flagship universities bear an unmatched responsibility to provide exceptional educational opportunities to state residents,” said IHEP President Michelle Asha Cooper. “As our college-going population becomes increasingly diverse, these premier institutions must be catalysts of social and economic mobility for state residents, while boldly disrupting existing racial and socioeconomic inequities.”

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