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January 18, 2016

SDA Hosts Speaker on Access to Higher Education

A talk Monday evening by public policy researcher Tom Mortenson examined the effects of public policy on low-income students’ access to higher education.

Mortenson was invited to speak by the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA) at the University of Chicago. The event was originally scheduled for November 30, but was postponed due to a shooting threat that shut down classes and most campus events.

Mortenson is a senior scholar at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C. and an independent higher education policy analyst. The goal of his research is to aid traditionally underrepresented populations in higher education, including low-income, first-generation, and minority students.

“The price of higher education is going up at the same time that family income is going down,” Mortenson said in the beginning of his speech. He then exhibited data from his research and noted the gaps that exist in access to higher education in the United States.

Only about 34 percent of high school graduates from families that earn less than $10,000 per year enroll in college, while 83 percent of high school graduates from families that earn more than $150,000 per year enroll in college. The six-year bachelor’s degree completion rate is approximately 32 percent for low-income and first-generation students, 48 percent for exclusively low-income students, 51 percent for exclusively first-generation students, and 71 percent for non-low-income and non-first-generation students.

Mortenson’s data demonstrates significant inequity between low-income and high-income students who enroll in college. “The education pipeline is hemorrhaging low-income kids; they’re just falling out of the system,” he said.

His statistics also point to the financial barriers to postsecondary education that remain for the poor. From 1987 to 2014, the upper limits for family income declined for both the bottom income quartile and the middle income quartile, rising only for the top income quartile.

Mortenson noted that as states reduce their fiscal support for higher education, public institutions increase their tuition to offset the loss of state backing. According to his figures, the average tuition and required fees in public institutions in constant dollars skyrocketed from 1964 to 2012, while the mean unmet financial need for dependent undergraduates steadily increased for the bottom income quartile from 1990 to 2012.

Mortenson, by applying figures collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, demonstrated that European countries such as Iceland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and Poland are all increasing their nations’ attainment rates of university-level degrees at higher rates than the United States. “We’re failing in our public policy choices. The European nations are positioning themselves to succeed while we’re not,” he said.

He also outlined his recommendations for restoring college affordability and reversing what he called a regressive social policy agenda. His recommendations included federal-state partnerships for financing the Pell Grant program, college work-study for all students, income-based student loan repayment, admissions lotteries for class-selective Title IV institutions, and rigorous evaluation of all financial aid programs for effectiveness.

“This labor market is absolutely brutal. It’s really hard to do well without post-secondary education. Being honest and hardworking is still essential, but it’s not enough anymore. You need post-secondary education,” Mortenson said.

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