It is no secret that the price of higher education has skyrocketed over the last few decades. Forbes reported that the cost of education is increasing at a rate eight times that of increasing wages. This has a variety of implications, not only acting as a barrier to higher education for many students in the U.S., but also a stratification of student populations within these institutions. Socioeconomic status is a much better predictor of college admittance, attendance and graduation than any other attribute, more than gender or race. The odds of obtaining a bachelor’s degree by age 24 has increased for Americans, but only for Americans of a particular income bracket: in the 1970s, about 6% of high school graduates from families in the lowest quartile of income would earn a degree by age 24. This rate has stayed pretty flat, hovering around 8% in 1990, declining to 7% in 1995, and again reaching 6% in 2002 (the most recent data obtained). In contrast, students from the upper-middle quartile saw their chances almost double over this time period, from 14.9% to 26.8%, and students from the highest quartile saw improvement from 40% to 50%. This means that now more than ever, institutions of higher education have a wider disparity of student backgrounds and socioeconomic status.
Not only does this stratification depress social mobility in this country and prevent people from rising in economic status, it creates discomforts and adversities for students of all backgrounds within these institutions. It can also create dangerous precedent for upper and middle class students, by giving the impression that only students of a certain background can or should be welcome in higher education, and may leave them unprepared to have difficult conversations about class after graduation. Students can get the impression that individuals from working class families or families in poverty are not as hard working or not as deserving of higher education, when in reality, they face more barriers to obtaining their degrees. While all these points are important, there is an overarching moral threat to be considered as well: that education is becoming a private good, one that can be purchased, and not a public good, one that is to be provided. If we lived in a genuine meritocracy like many Americans believe, then education would act as a better ticket for social mobility and economic freedom.
Higher education needs to be more accessible to anyone who may want to get a degree and better their lives. A first-generation student getting a degree can be life-changing for them and their families; it is a great first step to a new life. Lawrence needs to celebrate and accommodate all of its students, no matter their socioeconomic background. This could be achieved by more support groups that can connect students who may encounter barriers because they do not have the same resources as their more fortunate classmates. As Lawrence starts making education more available through their incredible financial aid efforts, Lawrentians can start making this campus a home for everyone.