Are America’s flagship universities fulfilling their promise of economic mobility?

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Higher education has long been promised as the best pathway to economic and social mobility. Is that dream still alive?

By U2B Staff 

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University and higher education, in general, has long been promised as the best pathway to economic and social mobility. Many prospective students are reassured that a college degree remains the best way to move up the career ladder, promising higher wages and a gateway to opportunity.

But that dream is becoming increasingly out of reach for many of the very people it is supposed to help.

Low-income Americans with aspirations to attend college are fighting against mounting headwinds to get qualifications needed for the next step in their lives. In many cases, the very institutions founded on the premise of accessibility for all – America’s flagship public universities – are the ones causing the often insurmountable problems.

A new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has demonstrated that state flagship universities are not affordable for students from low- and middle-income backgrounds. While they have long been depicted as providing an affordable pathway for low- and middle-income students to pursue higher education and with that greater economic mobility, analysis indicates this is not the case.


As the colleges that tend to receive the most support from the state government, the potential for helping these students is still present but many institutions are squandering this opportunity and failing to offer affordable higher education for all.

Using output from institutional net price calculators for first-year students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and comparing these prices to how much students and their families can afford, IHEP found that in today’s higher education environment, college is only accessible to the wealthiest students.

Affordability and the financial black hole

The IHEP report found the situation of affordability at flagship universities was dire, leaving them financially unviable to the majority of students.

Of the 50 state flagship universities in the United States, only six managed to meet an affordability benchmark for students who are not from high-income backgrounds.

And only four institutions out of 50—the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—are affordable for low-income first-year students.

For those in the high-income bracket, however, the US is their oyster with all 50 institutions being within reach.

affordable higher education
University of Michigan was deemed affordable higher education for low-income first-year students. Source: Dieon Roger / Shutterstock

This lack of affordability is still true even when many colleges are cutting tuition fees after years of exponential growth. As enrolment across the board starts to plateau, colleges are eager not to scare off any prospective students.

According to a recent survey from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), those discounts are set to hit a record high in academic year 2018-2019, with the average tuition discount rate for first-time, full-time first-year students at private, nonprofit four-year institutions expected to reach 52.2 percent.

As low- and middle-income students are forced to make some tough decisions about their future, their health and academic attainment is often the casualty of the financial burden.

When students are struggling to meeting the financial requirements, they “may turn to student loans, putting them in a longterm financial hole,” the report points out.


“Others may forgo college altogether, while those who do enroll may select lower-cost schools with fewer resources, work long hours during school, stop in and out of school in order to accumulate savings, or sacrifice basic necessities like food and housing to make ends meet.

“Unfortunately, many of these cost-saving strategies will ultimately reduce those students’ odds of finishing their degrees.”

Even with the help of grants, tuition fees are landing even the most diligent of students in mountains of debt or simply unable to afford to attend.

The report found at some flagships, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds may need to cover over US$80,000 beyond what they can afford over four years. That’s assuming they attend full-time and complete their degree on-time, any delays, and this cost continues to rise.


Even those institutes that were found to be affordable, the intake of low-income students was still shockingly low. Accessing even the cheapest of the flagship colleges remains a hurdle for many.

Surprisingly, of the top five most affordable institutions for low-income students, three are in the bottom five for low-income student enrolment.

It appears simply making colleges affordable to disadvantaged students is not enough. In fact, among the 10 most affordable flagships for low-income dependent students, five have Pell enrolment rates lower than 15 percent: Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Federal Pell Grants usually are awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree. Its sole purpose is to make higher education a realistic goal for those without the financial capacity.

affordable higher education
The University of Wisconsin has a Pell enrolment rate lower than 15 percent despite being among the 10 most affordable flagships for low-income dependent students. Source: youngryand / Shutterstock

And yet, affordable flagship colleges are still not recruiting those recipients. The extraordinarily low enrolment rates of low-income students at the 10 most affordable flagships are less than half the national average of 30 percent at “very selective” four-year institutions, the report found.

Rather than just adjust tuition, colleges need to be actively enrolling students from low-income backgrounds. This requires “an institutional commitment to diversity and an equity-minded approach to admissions.”

“Flagships should commit to recruiting in all corners of their state, with a focus on high-poverty high schools,” the IHEP recommends.

“Admissions practices such as the use of early decision and early action, overreliance on standardised test scores, and consideration of legacy status, demonstrated interested, or criminal justice involvement disproportionately benefit wealthy students and create additional barriers to higher education for students with fewer resources.”

Resources are going to the wrong people

As the recipients of the largest cut of state funding, flagships are not necessarily struggling for the resources to provide financial aid to students, they’re just giving it to the wrong people.

IHEP found many states and institutions provide large grants to students who can already afford college.


“At 34 flagships, the state or institution provides financial aid to a typical high-income student who comes from a household earning more than US$167,000 per year. Nearly one-third of these provide US$5,000 or more in aid per year to a typical high-income student.”

Shockingly, at six institutions, high-income aid outstripped the low-income unmet need for the students in this analysis.

State vs affordable higher education

This problem highlights the fact that it’s not just colleges that are to blame for the current situations. Institutions and states share the responsibility for these patterns.

affordable higher education
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was deemed are affordable to low-income first-year students. Source: wayfarerlife / Shutterstock

Many universities are themselves struggling with dwindling resources, as enrolment stagnates and state funding has been continually slashed for years. States have collectively scaled back their annual funding of public colleges by US$9 billion since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. While this makes things more challenging, it is no excuse to neglect disadvantaged students, the report says.

IHEP calls on flagships to better priotitise low-income students within their admissions, pricing, and financial aid strategies.

It also places responsibility at the feet of state legislators, urging them to work with institutional leaders to make flagships more affordable, more accessible, and more equitable.

“Policymakers should leverage federal funding to encourage states to invest in higher education, maintain low-costs to students, and commit to high-quality educational offerings.”