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EDKP: “Engines of Inequality” Review

May 5, 2008

Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities

This is a fascinating study, which seems to have gathered together data from a variety of sources in order to answer a number of questions about the state of postsecondary opportunities for low-income and minority students. In particular, the work that the Education Trust has done to highlight the distribution of financial aid should really receive more attention by institutions, organizations, and individual donors alike. The fact that these so-called “public flagship universities” are actually spending more money (on average) on students from high-income families than on students from low-income families is alarming. I do have a few questions/critiques, however.

It seems as if this research paper is part of a series of papers from this organization, so it is possible that these issues are addressed in other parts of the series, but even if that is the case, this paper would have been stronger if they had been addressed, even briefly. There seem to be two basic assumptions on which this research is based, seemingly without adequate support (or perhaps without enough *explicit* supportive evidence). The first is that these “public flagship universities” are somehow the best institutions (both subjectively and objectively) for low-income and minority students from their constituent states to attend (in every state, no less) and the second is that financial difficulty is the primary reason why low-income and minority students are not attending those institutions at the same rate that they are graduating from high schools in constituent states.

The first question is a complex one, I know, and I am sure that the U.S. News & World Report rankings are precisely the kind of ranking system that the authors would find fault with, but I do think it is important to at least acknowledge that it is problematic to compare the student access/success situation at a highly respected institution, like the University of California-Berkley (ranked 21 by USNWR), and a somewhat less respected institution, like the University of Arkansas (ranked 124 by USNWR), as if they are parallel institutions when they, likely, are not. In particular, if the access/success issue is extended beyond the college years, it seems very possible, perhaps even probable, that the opportunities and career outcomes available to graduates from those institutions would be different. Further, if we move into the second question that I raised, I think it would also be important to think about cultural, geographic, and other reasons why the major state universities might not be the best or preferred postsecondary educational space for some low-income and minority students, particularly right after high school.

With the presence of community colleges and Minority-Serving Institutions, especially Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) in the South and Tribal Colleges & Universities (TCUs) in the Midwest, the Prairies, and the Southwest, there may be other factors at play beyond financial difficulties. I know that a number of people in the African-American community place a high value on the kind of cultural, social, and inclusive academic strength available at places like Howard University, Spellman, Morehouse, Florida A&M University, and other HBCUs, as well as appreciating the prestige within the Black community that is conferred on HBCU graduates. Also, in the case of students attending most TCUs, some HBCUs, and many other community-based colleges, students may have enrolled at these local institutions in order to retain close ties to their families, communities, cultures, and lands. The fact that by virtually any standard, these students academic credentials would warrant admission to most of the top universities of the country (p.15) does not necessarily mean that they should attend those institutions or that they want to.

Even if we assume that the vast majority of students should attend the “public flagship university” in their state and that they want to do so but somehow end up not enrolling (access) or not staying (success), it is still incredibly important to establish why that is the case. The study states that: “Certainly, inadequate financial aid isn’t the only cause of lower access and success rates for low-income students and students of color at the flagships. However in this time of rapid escalation in college costs, it’s hard not to see a connection between how and on whom institutions spend their available aid dollars and who actually enrolls.” This seems like it should be a viable question. I can’t think of a particular study offhand, but either there already are studies that reveal why low-income or minority students don’t enroll in or graduate from major public universities (at projected levels) or there should be.

I do certainly find this study to be well-organized, immensely intriguing, and very worthwhile, particularly as a new window on the distribution of financial aid at the nation’s public universities. However, if the authors could provide more grounding for their basic assumptions about the worth of these institutions and the factors contributing to the lack of reasonable low-income and minority student enrollment and graduation rates, then I think the comprehensiveness and quality of the piece would definitely raise it from a 4-star rating to a 5-star rating.


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