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Inequality in Higher Education




The first step after getting a high school education is typically moving on to higher education. This step, however, is not possible for a lot of students due to the role that wealth inequality plays in their lives.

“If they have access to unequal resources beginning early, then that contributes to inequalities in performance that then play out throughout their educational careers,” Ross Rubenstein, professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University, said. “And eventually it affects their ability to graduate high school and get into college. And if they are able to overcome the odds and get into college, it can affect the types of schools they attend.”

There are many factors that play into a student’s decision on whether or not to attend college. The cost of college is one major factor. According to the College Board, the average cost of college depends on such factors as whether one stays in state or goes out of state for college.

“What might be less covered in the media is that a student’s living costs have also been rising. That’s what you need to pay to have adequate shelter, adequate food, your transportation, make sure you can get your laundry done; everything else about going to school,” Katharine Broton, Ph.D. candidate in sociology, said.

The amount spent on room and board can vary greatly depending on the school you attend and how much housing is available on campus. According to, the average costs for room and board have been growing steadily over the last few years, where students are paying anywhere from $7,500 to $9,000 per year to live on campus, depending on whether it is a public or private university.

There are way that students can receive help in order to pay for things such as the cost of college and their housing. There are many different types of financial aid that is available to students and their families in order to lessen the burden.

Federal Student Aid is known as the largest provider of student financial aid. They provide over $150 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds each year to help students pay for college. They are also responsible for developing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known to most as the FAFSA.

The FAFSA takes a look at many factors to determine the amount of financial aid a student can receive. It asks for the parents’ tax information, as well as the student’s tax information, and includes many other factors. There are also questions that are not answered within the FAFSA.

“There’s some ways that I think we can focus on how wealth is handled in the FAFSA. So for example, several assets are not included in the expected family contribution calculations. Things like the equity in a primary home, retirement accounts, small family-owned businesses, cash value of life insurances. Those don’t get put into the formula when we’re figuring out how much aid should a student be awarded,” Broton said.

She added that the form does not look at debt situations with the family.

Along with paying for college, some students simply don’t have the time or resources available to attend college.

“There are big differences in high school graduation rates and so obviously if you don’t graduate high school, you don’t have the opportunity to attend college. And so we start to see the gaps starting pretty early on and perpetuating throughout students’ educational careers,” Rubenstein said.

Having the resources available to them, such as SAT or ACT prep, is also important. Students with these types of resources also have more access to professional programs that help them do better on those types of tests.  

One of the biggest things to understand is that there are many types of reasons for these inequalities, according to Fabian Pfeffer, research assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

“I think there is a lot, there should be a lot to be done to address these educational inequalities. There are many reasons why you might want to reduce educational inequalities. Some of them are normative or moral reasons. But increasingly, I think people are also aware of the fact that there are economic reasons to this. That it’s actually not very good for anyone that we don’t have enough college graduates.”

In the end, while these inequalities in education need to be fixed, we must begin with the problem of wealth inequality overall as a guiding step to addressing the problems and finding solutions.