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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2002

U.S. Study Paints Bleak Picture for College Access

Nearly 170,000 academically qualified high school students in the United States will be unable to attend a post-secondary institution this year because they cannot afford to so, according to a report prepared by a government advisory body.

In Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance warns that unless federal and state governments enrich needs-based grants, up to two million students will be denied access to a college or university education over the next decade because of financial barriers.

"The financial barriers to a college education have risen sharply due to shifts in policies and priorities at the federal, state and institutional levels, resulting in a shortage of student aid, and, in particular, need-based grant aid, as well as rising tuition," the report states. "As a result, students from low- and moderate-income families who graduate from high school fully prepared to attend a four-year college confront daunting financial barriers. For these students the promise of a college education is an empty one. For the nation, the loss of human capital will exact a serious economic and social toll for much of this century."

The report says the value of needs-based programs in the U.S., such as the Pell Grant, has eroded at the same time that many states and institutions have shifted resources to merit-based programs that fund many students who would have enrolled in a college or university without such aid.

"These policies have created a shortfall in grant aid that prevents large numbers of low- and moderate-income high school graduates from attending four-year colleges. Today, this shortfall requires staggering levels of work and loans, which undermine enrollment," the report concludes.

This latest report from the advisory committee follows an earlier study, Access Denied, which concluded that financial barriers were the main obstacle preventing academically qualified high school graduates from going on to college. Critics charged that report with ignoring the non-financial factors, such as the educational attainment of parents and the academic preparedness of high school graduates, that also determine whether students go on to higher education.

In the latest report, the committee directly responds to these criticisms, drawing upon a number of surveys to show that financial ability is the primary determinant of access.

"While parents' education - specifically, having a college degree - along with family income is positively related to student academic preparation, there is no evidence that it has an effect on college enrollment independent of the effect of family income and financial aid for college-qualified high school graduates. In fact, if financial aid is adequate, low-income high school graduates who are college-qualified will enroll in a four-year college at extremely high rates, regardless of the level of parents' education. Conversely, if financial aid is inadequate, the same students will be unable to enroll in large numbers regardless of the parents' level of education," the report argues.

According to the advisory committee's report, recent data show that:

  • 52 per cent of qualified high school graduates from low-income families enroll at a four-year college, compared with 83 per cent of qualified graduates from high-income families.
  • 22 per cent of qualified high school graduates from low-income families do not enroll in any type of college at all, compared with only four per cent of qualified graduates from high-income families.
  • 43 per cent of qualified high school graduates from moderate-income families (those with incomes from $25,000 to $49,999) do not enroll in a four-year college, and 16 per cent do not enroll in any type of post-secondary institution.

"(Governments) must focus squarely on lowering unmet need and the debilitating work and loan burdens that confront low- and moderate-income families today. Additional efforts to increase academic preparation or enhance information about college and financial aid cannot overcome these daunting financial barriers," the committee recommends.

CAUT executive director James Turk says that while the report focusses on the situation in the U.S., it does raise some troubling questions about access to post-secondary education in Canada.

"Unlike the U.S., Canada has no national needs-based grant," Turk said. "If financially needy American students are facing problems, the situation is just as bad if not worse for their Canadian counterparts."

The advisory committee's report is available at