Expert Opinion: Misplaced Ownness

Expert Opinion: Misplaced Ownness

As a historian by training, as well as at heart, I was giddy to see the most recent Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2022 Historical Trend Report produced by the Pell Institute, Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD).

One of the most frequently used phrases in my household is, “Well, depends on the context” and this is why I found this report so very important; it lends the necessary social context needed to grapple with the most pressing questions in our field:

  • Why do certain groups enter into and complete higher education at higher rates than others?
  • What can we do about our gross educational inequities in the United States?

So, go ahead, grab a virtual copy of the report and settle in. I will walk you through what I consider to be three of the most important takeaways. As you read, pay attention to the parentheses; this is where I will tell you where in the report you can find the data, figures, or facts that I am citing.

Point #1: Much has not changed – in fact, it has actually gotten worse for first-generation and low-income students.

This is a fact that is often skirted over in casual conversations about educational attainment. Yes, we should be paying attention to average acceptance, retention, and graduation rates at our institutions, but more importantly, what do our trends tell us about access?

The report indicates that in 2016, the majority of undergraduate students in our country are first-generation college students (56%; Equity Indicator 1h(ii)). This indicator (e.g., data point of interest) alone is not concerning, but when coupled with the increasing share of students from low-income backgrounds, we should be very concerned. The report states, “The percentage of K-12 students eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunches and First-Time Full-Time (FTFT) undergraduates with Pell or other Federal Grants has almost doubled in the last few decades (STS Figure 6a).” Now why is this, you may ask? Let’s move to the next point…

Point #2: We look at K-12 and Higher Ed Institutions to fix problems that have deep social and policy roots.

I am frequently asked the question, “So, what are schools going to do?” Unfortunately, my answer is never satisfying – “Well, what can they do, with limited (often decreasing) funding to mitigate decades of growing wealth and resource disparities?”

The answer is rarely about tweaking the programming and curriculum; we know what works, we just have not funded it adequately to reach the growing number of students entering college from low-income backgrounds (Equity Indicator 7d(ii)).

Right out of the gate, this report pointed to our country’s growing rising wealth and income inequality as the largest contributing factor in our educational crises. The report cites wealth disparities across the board, but also disparities in college entrance rates by parental educational attainment.

A clear picture begins to emerge once these points are linked to the report’s indicator stating that between 1975-2021, “the overall college cost increased by about 157 percent ($9,849 and $25,281) (Equity Indicator 3b(i))”. In order to finance college, our students must go into massive debt.

But isn’t there financial assistance for students coming from the lowest income quintile? Not nearly enough to cover the shocking 94% of their family’s income that it would take to keep up pace with the cost of college (Equity Indicator 4b (ii)). To keep up with this pace, the Pell would need to be increased to $17,126 rather than the stagnant $6,345 that it is today (Equity Indicator 3b (iii)).

Point #3: Our students are hopeful.

Finally, some good news! According to the report, despite the odds, the majority of first-generation, low-income students remain hopeful about their higher education prospects. This is an important piece of the puzzle.

The more important piece of the puzzle is that they are not failing – they are being failed to the tune of 21%. Only 21% of first-generation, low-income students obtain a degree within 6 years (Equity Indicator 5c (iii)).

Educational inequity is a symptom of our country’s social and economic state, not a problem for schools and colleges to solve themselves. History allows us to see how it fits into a large, complex story of our country. The work lies with everyone, but the misplaced ownness lies with policymakers. The equation is simple, those making policy must align priorities in order to get there.


Citation: Cahalan, Margaret W., Addison, Marisha, Brunt, Nicole, Patel, Pooja R., Vaughan III, Terry, Genao, Alysia & Perna, Laura W. (2022). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2022 Historical Trend Report. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD).


Contributed By Lauren Coleman-Tempel

Lauren Coleman-Tempel, Ph.D. is the assistant director of Research, Evaluation & Dissemination for the University of Kansas Center for Educational Opportunity Programs (CEOP). She oversees multiple federally funded equity-based program evaluations including GEAR UP and TRIO and assists with the supervision of research and evaluation projects.

Follow @CEOPmedia on Twitter to learn more about how our Research, Evaluation, and Dissemination team leverages data and strategic dissemination to improve program outcomes while improving the visibility of college access programs.