The Education Scandal That's Bigger Than Varsity Blues

Rich kids are enrolled in college at three times the rate of poor kids.

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It’s hard to snatch attention from the jaws of intrigue, and Varsity Blues had it all. There were fake SAT scores, a shady deal maker, and wealthy parents eager to lay waste to anything standing in front of their children on the road to a selective college—the vaunted status symbols that they are. This exposes the gritty underbelly of the race to get into America’s colleges, a common refrain went.

As my colleague Alia Wong noted shortly after the scandal broke, these sorts of high-stakes admissions antics represent only a fraction of college admissions—a small one at that—because most colleges aren’t that selective. More than 80 percent of students attending bachelors-degree-granting colleges go to those that accept more than half of their applicants, according to an Atlantic analysis. These not-so-selective schools are the big picture of higher education, the forest so many miss while examining in microscopic detail the bark and leaves of a few “top-tier” trees.

A pair of new reports show how even looking at that bigger forest still misses the wider world that it grows on and that shapes it. On Wednesday, the National Center for Education Statistics released new data showing a 50-percentage-point gap—that’s right, 50 percentage points—in college-going rates between students who come from the highest-earning families and the lowest earning. Of students who entered ninth grade in 2009, 78 percent of those from the wealthiest 20 percent of families were enrolled in college seven years later (in 2016), whereas just 28 percent of students from the lowest quintile were.

The numbers, although not necessarily shocking to those paying close attention to higher education, are jarring. Going to college—and staying there—are rites of passage for only certain slices of the American public.

That said, over time, the trajectory for higher education is that it is becoming more inclusive, and more lower-income students are attending than in the past. The Pew Research Center released a new analysis on Wednesday showing that the number of low-income students has increased “dramatically” over the two decades from 1996 to 2016, and now makes up nearly a third of the overall student population. The bulk of the growth occurred at two-year colleges and private for-profit institutions, but there was also significant growth at less selective bachelors-degree-granting colleges. Similarly, the share of racial minorities increased across all sectors of higher education, but, again, the increases were most prominent at less selective bachelors-degree-granting institutions and two-year colleges. This is due, in no small part, to efforts from universities—especially regional, open-access institutions—to recruit low-income and minority students. The highly selective institutions continue to draw the majority of their students from middle- and high-income families, the report said.

But the fact that regional, open-access schools are making strides with low-income and minority students comes with a catch: During this same time period, state funding of higher education has declined significantly. “Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level,” a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reads. On top of that, the purchasing power of the Pell Grant, a federal grant for low-income students, has dipped as well. So as higher-education opportunities and outreach to poor students have increased, the resources available to them on campus—both in terms of the opportunities they have and the support they can access—have dwindled.

Still, even taking account of the gains described in Pew’s report, the overall picture is bleak for low-income students, the vast majority of whom will never go to—much less graduate from—college. Varsity Blues was easy to see and pick apart from the canopy. But for most Americans, what matters is the wider forest—and whether they can get there at all.