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Hoskin: Social Class Distinction and College Success

by Hannah Hoskin

As tuition continues to rise at public and private universities across America, the striking similarity between social class distinction and the hierarchy of higher education is more apparent than ever. The current structure of college and higher education systems reflects the issues surrounding inequality of income throughout the nation; the most prestigious universities possess the largest percentages of students from privileged families and some of the smallest percentages of students from low-income families. Performance on the SAT and ACT influence this trend to a certain extent, but test scores do not fully explain the controversial hierarchy associated with college acceptance, attendance, and retention. The wealthy have numerous unfair advantages over low-income families, such as ability to afford extracurricular activities, SAT/ACT and AP test prep, and better access to information about colleges. Students from low-income families are also plagued with more problems when trying to attend college such as financial aid issues and family obligations, leading to lower graduation rates. Income inequality and social class are substantial issues that will greatly affect the future of higher education in America if changes in the higher education system are not made.

Students from high-income families have a significant advantage over students from low-income families regarding ease of being admitted to top colleges and earning four-year degrees. Children from privileged families have the opportunities to participate in copious numbers of extracurricular activities, leading to more decorative and impressive resumes. Wealthy families are able to pay lofty sums of money to ensure that their children receive the best possible SAT, ACT, and AP test preparation and tutoring. Additionally, if wealthy parents are not satisfied with the caliber of the public school system their children attend, they can afford to send their children to high caliber, college preparatory private schools. Students from low-income families most likely reside in areas with ill-equipped public school systems and therefore do not receive the same quality of education as wealthier students. Public schools in poor areas do not offer as many AP courses as public schools in wealthy areas or private schools, further inhibiting poor students from succeeding and getting into good colleges. Despite setbacks such as these, some poor students achieve high grades and excellent SAT and ACT scores. However, College Board president David Coleman reports that over half of the students from low-income families who score in the top ten percent on the SAT and ACT don’t even apply to the most prestigious institutions in the nation. The influence of social class distinction and growing up in economically disadvantaged environments can negatively influence poor students, blinding them to all of the opportunities they have in the higher education setting.

The lack of admission of students from poor families into good colleges only composes a part of the issue of the future of higher education in America. Graduation and retention rates are more telling with regards to the relationship between socioeconomic status and the higher education hierarchy. Students from low-income families are significantly less likely to earn a four-year degree by age 24 than students from well-off families; even poor students who score between 1200 and 1600 (on SAT 1600 scale) on the SAT are forty percent less likely to earn a degree than students from wealthy families. This astounding graduation gap is the result of a number of issues, including ill preparation for the rigor of college, financial aid issues, and family obligations. Students from economically disadvantaged communities do not experience the same rigor of academic work in high school as students from wealthy backgrounds; when poor students actually get to college and begin taking classes, they can be discouraged by failure and lack of preparation. The decreased amount of government funding for college costs can leave disadvantaged students struggling under massive student loans and enormous amounts of debt. Students from low-income families are also more likely to be forced to return home due to family obligations; oftentimes the student must return to work due to inability of the parents or guardians to make ends meet on their own and support the family.

Though increasing numbers of students are choosing to attend college as time progresses, the higher education system is becoming more sorted by class. The future of higher education in America is riddled with uncertainty and a drastic number of issues regarding decreasing opportunities for students from low-income families. The increase in tuition coupled with decrease in federal financial aid leaves poor students either unable to attend college at all or struggling under tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Students from low-income families face significantly more problems when trying to get into and complete college, while the wealthy have the advantage of extracurricular activities, SAT/ACT and AP test prep, and better access to college information. There are and will continue to be substantial issues relating to the future of higher education in America surrounding social class distinction and college opportunities for students from poor families, especially if the higher education system continues to operate in the same manner it is today.

Hannah Hoskin, of the Class of 2018, is from Berkeley Lake, Ga.