Future of the university: closing the opportunity gap

If I could change something in higher education, it will be closing the opportunity gap. This has societal impacts that are way beyond the individual: can improve the quality of life of the population and even the economic development of the country.

Education has been long credited with social mobility; for example, data indicates that those who have been able to enter and complete a four-year degree have a better chance to become middle class[1]. At the same time, social mobility[2] (figure 1) and higher levels of education2 (figure 2) inversely correlates with the levels of income inequality of a country, as the figures below indicate:

Inequality vs Income correlation

Educational scores in math and reading vs income inequality

This is specialty truth in minority communities, where the lack of opportunities enhances a vicious cycle of poverty. However, the current social and economic system rewards exclusion in education: the top-ranked US institutions are the ones that receive the highest per-student public funding is the least diverse ones[3], missing the chance of reducing the opportunity gap through their institutions.

How can this gap be closed? Depends on several factors.  The most obvious solution is first, to present higher education as a possibility to the low-income and minority population, and then financing their education. The financial aspect is a major barrier for those who want to go into higher education, and it creates segregated educational systems were just a few manage to go in, most of them not without a huge debt at the end. After enrollment, however, the next problem in line is completion. The available information reveals an overall 40% dropout rate for undergraduates, with 30% of college freshmen dropping out their first year[4]. This is even worse for community colleges that enroll a majority of less advantaged students, with a 54% dropout rate.

Again, the financial burden is still the main reason, followed by lack of preparation to take on college-grade studies: according to a 2009 National assessment of educational progress (NAEP) in high school seniors, only 38% showed above proficiency in reading, and that drops down to 26% for math[5].

This reveals that the problem is not only rooted in the financial part, but in the school system itself. Better-prepared students in the K-12 system can level up the field from the beginning, then, along with strong financial aid, can effectively elevate the completion rate in higher education across the population. This could also increase diversity and therefore the representativity, creating positive feedback: if somebody who is like me can do it, maybe I can do it as well. Other mechanisms that are already in motion in several universities in the US, is to mentor and guide students to successfully navigate college, especially when they are first-generation or do not have a strong support system.

Several other aspects influence the opportunity gap, such as the “educational deserts”, where colleges are more spread in wealthier areas in the US[6]; or the fact that college might not even be the appropriate path, and therefore technical education can be a way of obtaining skills that will assure a steady/ better income.

The numerous feedbacks between the educational, societal, and economic systems make it difficult to present a unique solution on how to close the opportunity gap. This requires the involvement of several actors, public and private, acting on long-term policies while understanding the needs of a part of the population to whom higher education can be a ticket to a better life.

[1] Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Gains and gaps: Changing inequality in US college entry and completion (No. w17633). National Bureau of Economic Research

[2] https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/social-mobility-and-education

[3] https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/01/17/three-things-consider-about-increasing-access-higher-education-essay

[4] https://educationdata.org/college-dropout-rates

[5] https://www.brookings.edu/research/higher-education-and-the-opportunity-gap/

[6] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/12/20/access-higher-education-tilts-heavily-toward-urban-areas

2 Replies to “Future of the university: closing the opportunity gap”

  1. Hi there,
    I enjoyed reading your comments on societal inequality – I actually wrote about the cost of college and how that is also leading to an inequality. What I found was interesting was how the cost of education and how the cost has been increasing so much more than inflation so the inequality is only growing. I have no idea how universities can combat this besides getting federal funding help (hopefully with our new president we can get a little more on track). Interested in seeing how this changes in the next four years!

    1. Hi Mary, thanks for your comment. I had no idea that the cost of education is now above inflation, but at the same time, not surprising. I do believe that education is key for social equity, therefore if a country wants to pull in that direction, the federal investment needs to be strong, and not rely purely in tuition. As you mentioned, the next four years are going to be really interesting in this matter.

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