Lagging Behind

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Studies show there is growing inequality in college degree attainment between students from high-income households and low-income households, said William Zumeta, professor of public affairs, educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington.

He presented the information to the House Higher Education Committee on Jan. 10.

According to a Public Policy Analysis of Opportunity for Postsecondary Education in 2009, a student born into the top income quartile of family incomes, more than $110,000, is 10 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than a student born into the bottom quartile, an income of less than $40,000. Problems with the System

“The system perpetuates inequalities,” Mortenson said. “It performs a sorting function and people are tracked toward or away from a bachelor’s degree beginning in K-12. If you are born into the top half of the income distribution, you have a good future; if you are born into the bottom half, the system works against you.”

According to the study, to earn a bachelor’s degree you must pass three hurdles: graduate from high school, continue enrollment in college, and complete a degree by age 24.

Zumeta said most of the reason for this inequality is that the system isn’t very tightly linked.  A lot of students fall through the cracks of the system, he said. More students aren’t making the leap from high school to college or from community college to a four-year institution, he said. Zumeta said the problem was also based on structural factors in the education system that caused it to lack a strong base.

“We have 295 local boards with different ideas, and there is no standardization to it,” he said. “In some places there shouldn’t be standardization. But, it is a lot more loosey-goosey than it should be.”

Zumeta said Washington has completely autonomous four-year public institutions that have to report only to their own board.

“We need to have a financial aid system that works,” Mortenson said. “It is going to cost many billions of dollars more than what we have right now. We need a different system for measuring the value of schools and legislature needs to come to their senses and stop putting higher education on the chopping block.” Problems in Society

The labor market has shifted, causing a large portion of the population to be at a disadvantage, Mortenson said. He pointed out that in the past, most lower and middle-income people made their money in unskilled work, such as logging and manufacturing — industries the United States has been exporting to other countries for many years.

Other than construction, all of those types of jobs in the United States are either dead or dying, he said, and now it is vital that we educate our workforce. Mortenson also discussed the problems with having a higher education system that prides itself on selectivity.

“U.S. News and World Report make people believe that the only good colleges are those that admit rich white kids,” he said. “Campuses are starting to look more like country clubs.”

Mortenson described the government as being run by the wealthy, for the wealthy.

“We are a government run by rich people, with the interests of rich people,” Mortenson said. “A fair number of academics have spent time describing this.”

Mortenson said that selective colleges knew they would have to change.

“You can’t tell a growing share of the population that American opportunities and the American experience are wrong for them,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘Sorry, you chose the wrong parents.’ ”

According to a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2009, one in three Caucasian students who attended a four-year institution graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Whereas eight out of 10 African-American students, and nearly nine out of 10 Hispanics do not earn a bachelor’s degree in the United States. Financial Aid

Knowing you have to go into debt deters people from applying to college,” said Mary Fallon, spokeswoman for Student Financial Aid Services and Student Aid Services. She said that on average people were graduating from college with loans of $24,000.

Fallon stressed the importance of applying for financial aid.

“A lot of low-income people who are eligible for aid don’t apply,” she said. “They find the form too complicated or think it is too late or they won’t qualify. They just don’t grasp the idea that there is a lot of money in support out there.”

According to various studies provided by Fallon, more than 8 million students do not apply for the federal student aid application.

Fallon explained that a lot of the problem had to do with not understanding the actual price of a university.

She explained that most often the “sticker price” quoted on the website is not the actual price that people pay.

She said that people very often don’t apply to colleges because they don’t know the real price that will come out of their pocket.

“I think people give up too easily,” she said. “There is a lot of help.”

Zumeta discussed the necessity of the availability of information.

“One thing we need to do is get people aware of the need to educate more of our population,” she said. “The country has to invest in higher education to a much greater extent than it has been willing.”

Mortenson said the complexity of the issue made it difficult to solve.

“Things are not getting brighter, and it’s a combination of things,” he said. “I can see the future fairly clearly for the next two decades; it is going to get worse before it gets better.” Importance of Higher Education

Zumeta and Mortenson stressed due to the current global economy, the importance of having a competitive higher education system.

Zumeta said the United States used to have the highest proportion of college graduates ages 25 to 64 in the world — now we rank 10th.

“Take a look at the folks who are going to be paying for your Social Security once you want to retire,” Zumeta said. “The workers are not going to be as productive in the global competition if they are not better educated because the competition is so much stiffer globally.”

Original Article written by Sarah Aitchison

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