If you study hard and get good grades, you can climb your way out of poverty. At least this is the romantic myth that most Americans still believe. In reality, the American system of higher education fails to create the opportunities that would allow low-income students to gain social mobility. Top colleges state their desire to recruit a diverse student body, yet they do an abysmal job at luring high-achieving, poor students into their applicant pools. The federal government must step in and take a larger role in pushing universities to more actively recruit the low-income population.
Only thirty four percent of the most talented high school seniors in the bottom fourth of the income distribution attended one of the nation's 238 most prestigious colleges. Most of these students do not even apply to these selective colleges because they are unaware of the amount of financial aid available to them or because they have never met someone who attended one of these schools. They lack the role models and knowledge necessary to guide them towards applying to top-tier schools. This is outrageous because low-income students who did make it into top colleges were found to be very successful. Eighty nine percent of students either graduated or were on track to do so.
To put this in perspective, seventy eight percent of students from the highest income quartile apply to the nations top colleges. Low-income students, instead attend community colleges or local four-year colleges that have significantly fewer resources and lower graduation rates. Many students who attend local college do not graduate. If they do graduate, the career opportunities available are significantly less prestigious than those offered at top schools, thus perpetuating the widening of the inequality gap in the US.
Ironically, because smaller state schools are less endowed, they offer less competitive financial aid packages and poor students often end up footing a higher bill for their education than they would if they attended a more prestigious university. The most selective colleges offer financial aid packages generous enough to close the gap for low-income students, if they were only aware of their options.
The federal government should be responsible for ensuring the nation's top colleges are targeting students on the lower end of the income spectrum. Federal aid should be distributed only to schools that show evidence of measurable efforts to target low-income students through increased mail brochures, phone calls, on-campus visits, e-mails, social media, and alumni outreach. Additionally, universities' funding should be tied to the ability to demonstrate a larger enrollment percentage of economically diverse students.
It is no longer acceptable for the government to sit idle on this issue. These education policies are not revolutionary, nor difficult to implement, as a similar task was accomplished through racial affirmative actions programs. The government should be eager to implement such policies alongside existing affirmative action programs, because they would not only dramatically benefit poor students and their families by offering them a chance to break the cycle of poverty, but they would benefit the entire economy by harnessing untapped human capital. This is critical if the US wishes to continue thriving in an increasingly competitive world market.