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Income Inequality Is A Major Barrier To Attending College


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're continuing our look at how Americans pay for college. Income inequality is a greater barrier to college than in years past.

Here's our colleague David Greene.


We've heard about skyrocketing tuition, and also we've heard from college grads who are saddled with debt. This morning, another voice: Suzanne Mettler from Cornell University. In her new book, "Degrees of Inequality," she says government aid once helped make college an engine of upward mobility.

SUZANNE METTLER: From the creation of the GI Bill in 1944, up through Pell Grants in 1972, we had all of these federal student aid policies being created that were enabling more and more people to become the first in their families to go to college. And also, states were investing more than ever in public universities and colleges, and those really broadened access to college.

GREENE: But Mettler argues that American higher education today is actually increasing economic inequality and fostering social division. She tracked some of the changes with us. First, Pell Grants: Once, many Americans could count on federal help for a lot of their college bills.

METTLER: Back in the 1970s, we had Pell Grants that were covering 80 percent of the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board for someone to attend the average four-year public university.

GREENE: So this would help people in all different incomes get to college?


GREENE: Today, Pell Grants cover just a quarter of that cost. And those same public universities themselves are also losing funding.

METTLER: There's been a dramatic reduction in the amount that states invest in these schools.

GREENE: States are just not investing as much in public universities. And so, tuitions are having to go up.

METTLER: Yes, that's right. And the other problem is that the universities and colleges, in order to make ends meet, are cutting back on resources for students. So they're squeezing more students into the classroom. The faculty-to-student ratio has grown much larger, and they are pushing more students into online courses. And it turns out that all of these transformations diminish graduation rates. And they have the biggest impact on the low-to-middle income people for whom higher education should really be providing that path to upward mobility.

GREENE: In your book, you talked about that government policies have been shifting resources away from lower-income students to more affluent students. And one example you bring up from during the Clinton administration was giving tax credits for college tuition. Tell me why you're not a fan of that.

METTLER: Well, it turns out that these tuition tax relief policies mostly help people who go to college, anyway. And actually, the initial ones were targeted to lower-middle income people. Over time, they've increased and expanded. And now they go to families with incomes up to $180,000, and the biggest amount of them goes to families that are close to that limit.

GREENE: If you were to look at a lower-income student who was interested in going to college, say, 30, 40 years ago, and a lower income student who has that same dream today, how does the world look differently to those two people?

METTLER: For most students who are low-to-middle income, they're going to be going to the public sector universities and colleges that have had these dramatic reductions in spending from states over time, and are really trying to squeeze resources. And so, even if they had relatives that went to the same universities back in the 1970s, they're not able to get the same experience today, because they have to pay so much more for it. And there's been such a reduction in resources.

GREENE: Let me just ask: There are some who would look at the current landscape and might say, you know, states are very cash-strapped. They have to make difficult decisions about what they invest in. And, you know, it's sort of a market out there. I mean, if affluent families can afford private colleges and people who have less money have different options, what is wrong with that scenario?

METTLER: I think we don't want a system of higher education that just separates Americans into separate tiers, like some kind of a caste system. Part of the educational experience is that it's really important for students in the classroom to be able to interact with people different from themselves, from different backgrounds.

GREENE: I just want to ask you about the caste system that you're describing. If we look after college, what impact does that have on students and sort of what their options are and what the country looks like?

METTLER: Well, we have more students than ever who enroll in college. And so, at the front end, it can look like we're really, as a nation, facilitating greater upward mobility. For students who are able to attend colleges that invest a lot in their students, they are able to have small classes, lots of interaction with faculty and to have that experience that can really transform their lives in all sorts of ways. But for other students who go to college and find themselves mostly in online classes or squeezed into very large classrooms where a professor is not going to know their name, the outcomes can be very different, indeed. Their likelihood of graduating becomes much lower with those experiences and what they're able to gain from it, much less.

GREENE: Professor Mettler, thank you so much for talking to us. It's been a pleasure.

METTLER: Oh, thank you so much for the opportunity.

GREENE: Suzanne Mettler from Cornell University, her book is called "Degrees of Inequality." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.