Inequalities in American Higher Education

Dr. Brittany L. Mosby
11 min readDec 16, 2020

Despite endless academic discussions, politicized debates, and polarized opinion pieces on the value and cost of a college degree, it remains the case that attainment of a postsecondary credential has the greatest likelihood of return on investment in terms of better quality of life, higher income, and greater civic engagement (Perna, 2005). Consistently within gender, race, and class demographic groups, college graduates accrue economic and social benefits not experienced by their less-educated peers, including access to health care, participation in culturally-enriching activities, and voting (Perna, 2005). However, the relative achievement within demographic groups belies the significant disparity in achievement between demographic groups. That is, even among college graduates, women are less well-off than men; Blacks and Hispanics are less well-off than Whites; and those from lower-income families are less well-off than families of higher income (Perna, 2005). Higher education reproduces inequality in social and economic outcomes for students, as evidenced by the stratification of enrollment, the inherent bias in the ranking system, and the race- and class-related differences in the college decision-making process.

College-Going Trends

It would be disingenuous to treat all college-going as equivalent. Ample data have shown that institutional typology has a statistically significant influence on educational, social, and economic outcomes. Students who attend top-tier, elite institutions are more likely to graduate and benefit from the “name brand” of their institution through professional networking and social mobility (The Upshot, 2017); while students who start at less selective schools — in particular community colleges — are less likely to graduate on time and have similar access to resources (Ma & Baum, 2016). And students who attend for-profit institutions are much more likely to borrow larger sums of money, default on their loans, and obtain degrees with significantly less value (Ma & Baum, 2016). The reproduction of social inequality can be observed in college-going rates and enrollment across the higher education sector by race and class.

Though they comprised 16 percent of public high school graduates in the 2011–2012 school year, Black students represented only 9 percent of 18–24 year olds enrolled in college, and 9 percent of 25–29 year olds with a bachelor’s degree or higher (Krogsted & Fry, 2014). Further, Black student enrollment is highly stratified by type of institution: at community colleges Black students are roughly proportional at about 16 percent of the population as opposed to only 6 percent of the student body at top-tier, highly selective-institutions (McGill, 2015). Black students are overrepresented in the for-profit sector: nearly one-quarter of enrollment at for-profit institutions is Black, whereas White students make up 31 percent (Ma & Baum, 2016). Similarly, lower-income students make up 31 percent of community college and 46 percent of for-profit enrollment, compared to 17 percent and 11 percent for the wealthiest students, respectively (Ma & Baum, 2016).

There is a cultural assumption — in fact it is a fundamental value of American society — that higher education functions as a meritocracy; that is, the “best and brightest” students are the ones who end up at the top-tier, elite institutions (Bowen, Kurzweil & Tobin, 2005). However, those colleges and universities are overwhelmingly white and wealthy.

Rankings: Signal and Noise

As public institutions must justify requests for increasing budgets to taxpayers and their state legislatures and private institutions must vie for greater enrollments, one measure of quality and accountability in higher education has been institutional rankings, such as the annual U.S. News and World Report on America’s Best Colleges. On the surface, rankings provide an important and necessary distillation of vast and complex data on the higher education marketplace into digestible chunks for mass consumption (McGee, 2015). Using input metrics such as admissions requirements, graduation rates, and job placement, rankings provide a variety of stakeholders — students and families, lawmakers, businesses — with a quick and simple tool for assessing institutional performance relative to peer institutions. The fallacy, however, is that rankings can create a premium for wealthy, non-first generational, full-time students, as these traits are almost always positively correlated with many of the ranking inputs (Bowen, Kurzweil & Tobin, 2005; Bowen & McPherson, 2016).

It is not a coincidence that the most selective schools with the largest shares of high socioeconomic status students are perennially ranked at the top of these lists. Almost one quarter of the richest students attend an elite college, compared to less than 1 percent of the lowest quintile (The Upshot, 2017). At Princeton University, which has been ranked number one among national universities by U.S. News and World for seven consecutive years, the acceptance rate is 7 percent, the median family income is $186,100 and 72 percent of students come from the top quintile in family income, while only 2.2 percent are from the bottom quintile (The Upshot, 2017). At the other end of the list, Georgia State University ties for 223rd place out of 311 national universities, the lowest numerical ranking provided by the U.S. News and World Report. It has an acceptance rate of 53 percent. The median family income is $60,300 and 26 percent of students come from the top quintile in family income, while 12 percent come from the bottom quintile (The Upshot, 2017). Georgia State University has the unique distinction of closing the attainment gap for both race and class, graduating more Black students (and over 2,000 for the first time) with bachelor’s degrees in 2017 than any other institution, including historically black college and universities (Georgia State University, 2017). Princeton, by comparison has approximately 500 Black and 650 Hispanic students (6 percent and 8 percent of total enrollment, respectively). That Georgia State should be ranked so far below Princeton becomes almost absurd when considering the broader, more democratic impact that Georgia State has on higher education.

Inequality is perpetuated when the ways by which we measure performance, quality, and accountability are so heavily and intrinsically biased towards an oligarchic few. Institutional rankings, while not without utility and merit, do not adequately convey the true nature of an institution’s quality or accountability, and in so doing, provide inequitable criteria for achieving a false excellence.

College-Readiness and Cost — Who Gets to Go (Where)

There has been a longstanding, seemingly dichotomous tension between excellence and equity, largely fueled by myopic definitions of each (Bowen, Kurzweil, & Tobin, 2005). From admissions to hiring decisions, the common refrain has been a reluctance to “giving away” a space to a presumably less qualified individual in the name of promoting diversity. Underlying this tension is the truism that minoritized groups — by race, class, gender, and others — also often have less access to resources and information than the majority (Bowen, Kurzweil, & Tobin, 2005). Higher education reproduces inequality by ignoring the inherent inequitable outcomes from K-12 education and by creating a de facto caste system of colleges and universities.

One mediating variable in the causal linkage between elevated Black and Hispanic enrollment at less selective and open access institutions is that these students are disproportionately of lower socioeconomic status and thereby tend to have less academic preparation. In Tennessee for example, Blacks made up 17 percent of the state population but accounted for 26 percent of the population living in poverty (Center for American Progress, 2018). In turn, only 10 percent of Black public high school graduates met college-readiness benchmarks in three or more subjects out of English, math, reading, and science — compared with almost 40 percent of White students (ACT, 2017). Living in poverty also means less access to college-boosting activities like ACT and SAT preparation courses, a major factor in admissions decisions (Bowen, Kurzweil, & Tobin, 2005). So while there have been significant increases over the past 20 years in the college-going rate among Black students, they are not going to elite colleges and universities (McGill, 2015). Perhaps equally damaging, institutions that have been successful in closing equity gaps for Black students are buried at the bottom of institutional rankings. While community colleges and other open access/less selective institutions provide excellent, quality educations for their students, they are also significantly less funded and have fewer resources to support students at the lowest levels of academic preparation. The faculty and staff can only do so much with finite budgets that are already stretched thin by other institutional needs. States where only community colleges are allowed to charge tuition for sub-college level courses, without funneling additional funds or support, have created a hierarchal system of higher education where options for many students are limited because of their background.

Minoritized students are not all underprepared, however. There are also many students with academic capability who do not go to the top schools they are qualified for due to perceived barriers and lack of transparency from institutions. Perna (2000) found that Black and Hispanic students overall have less educated parents than White students — which in turn affected the amount of social and cultural capital in the college decision-making process those students have. This is of particular note, as social and cultural capital was found to be as important to the decision to go to college as academic ability for Black and Hispanic students (Perna, 2000). Black and Hispanic students and families are also more sensitive to cost — tuition, financial aid, and loans — and without capital, may not discern the difference between the so-called “sticker price” and net tuition cost (Perna, 2000). This further reinforces institutional hierarchy, as Black and Hispanic students self-select — or are advised by uninformed guidance counselors and other adults — away from schools where their White counterparts are overrepresented. Left unchecked, these factors of academic ability and college knowledge lead to a race- and class-based stratification of enrollment in higher education. Further, because institutions have different access to budget resources, minoritized and lower-income students can receive a lower quality education, thereby perpetuating social inequality.

Recommendations for Equity

Moving towards more equitable outcomes for all students in higher education will take concerted and consistent effort from policymakers, institutional administrators, and other stakeholders. Here are three practical recommendations for states to consider to improve social and economic outcomes for its students.

Form better K-16 pipelines and partnerships. While K-12 and higher education officials may agree on what content is necessary and sufficient for college-readiness, there is certainly a disconnect in the level of mastery students have upon high school graduation and entrance into college. For many students, their biggest source of college knowledge comes from their high school guidance counselors and teachers (Perna, 2000), leaving them with incomplete information and sub-optimal decision-making. If colleges and universities were more actively involved with their local school district through collaboration and professional development, students could receive the skills and information they need to maximize their academic ability and make informed decisions about college selection. These partnerships could take the form of existing pre-college programs, dual credit/dual enrollment opportunities, open houses and college fairs, workshops and professional development for teachers and faculty, or utilizing teacher preparation programs as innovation generators. Doing these things through a formal coordinating structure would ensure optimal and efficient coverage of programs, and minimize the gulf between high school and college, which could lead to increased high school graduation rates and college-going rates.

Harness the power of data and predictive analytics. The main idea behind predictive analytics is twofold: mining large sets of information for insight into patterns of behavior, and using that insight to drive decision making. With the increasing use of technology in higher education to gather student and institutional data, there is a growing electronic trail of information that can be mined for insights. Dates of registration, amount of time spent on task in an online course, scanning of student ID cards, and common course sequencing are examples of interactions that leave a digital footprint, and can be used to draw conclusions about institutional processes and ways to make improvements. Specifically, analysis of these student data can provide insight into at-risk behaviors and indicators where additional support — both academic and non-academic — may be needed.

As mentioned above, Georgia State University has done tremendous work in closing the attainment gap for minoritized and lower-income students over the past decade. The focus at GSU has not been on specific programming for targeted populations of students, but instead, the school has embraced a culture of data and evidence, utilizing institutional information and inference to set the strategic plan. In particular, Georgia State has been able to use its own data to identify processes and structural barriers to progression that once removed, have benefited all students — but especially those at risk for early departure. Signature interventions at Georgia State include proactive advising and early alerts from faculty, automatic micro grants to cover outstanding balances for students close to graduation who meet specific criteria, and analytics-driven course scheduling to optimize course offerings for students and faculty.

Update the curriculum. Colleges and universities should equip their graduates with tools to thrive and lead in the 21st century (Lattuca & Stark, 1997). As our understanding of the world around us has changed, adapted, and grown — so too, should the undergraduate curriculum change to reflect this new understanding (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005; Lattuca & Stark, 1997). The traditional general education curriculum is largely comprised of mandatory heteronormative, Euro-centric perspectives; while “other” studies are relegated to elective subjects. It could certainly be the case that minoritized students are less likely to engage in higher education due to the perception of an outdated curriculum that marginalizes their experiences as people of color in the same way mainstream society does.

If colleges and universities instead committed to a general education curriculum that embraced multiculturalism and inclusive excellence, it would lead to an “educational enrichment” and rejuvenation of undergraduate education altogether (Kuh, et al., 2005). A diverse faculty enhances the undergraduate curriculum by offering diverse, multicultural and global perspectives, outside of the traditional lens of male/white-ness, adding a richness to both the college curriculum and conversations around campus (Gasman, 2016). Further, minoritized student success and intercultural knowledge increase when all students learn from a diverse faculty (Kayes & Singley, 2010). This would have the added benefit of giving greater faculty voice to departments that are also marginalized and frequently minoritized groups at the institution themselves.


Like most American institutions — government, health care, criminal justice, etc. — higher education has a certain embedded inequality in its outcomes. In particular, those who are non-white or lower-income are systematically discriminated against, unless there is an intentional intervention. The good news is that it is possible for institutions and states to make changes towards more equitable outcomes for all students. However, it cannot and will not occur in a vacuum. The higher education sector will need to use its position as an influencer of broader culture to lead to the deeply-rooted and necessary systemic changes across society.


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