Higher Education for All

Years ago I did some extensive postgraduate research about access, aspiration, and achievement of post secondary students in higher education–it was a 5-year longitudinal study that examined gender and racial statistics in a database of over 15,000 students who completed the study (National Center for Education Statistics data). The major focus of the research was on the role Adjusted Gross Income played in access, aspiration, and achievement of undergraduate students. Without going through pages of literature review and statistical analysis, we’ll simply summarize the findings as they pertain to today’s political discussions on higher education and economic levels in the population of the US.

photo3It should come as little surprise that socio-economic level plays a major factor in abilities to access, aspire, and achieve in higher education. However, in the post Civil Rights Act of 1964 period, the sociologists and psychologists created a mythology that focused largely on cultural influences as an overarching factor for post secondary achievement in higher education.

The notion may have been presumptively logical because issues for women and racial minorities were little understood by the predominately white male researchers of the day (it was a very biased worldview). Therefore, higher education access and environment became the focus of the period from the 1970s to the 1990s. It was the era of “multiculturalism” in higher education. While that is a good thing, it is not the solution for aspiration and achievement in today’s world.

The research clearly coincides with Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs from a socio-economic perspective, and it applies regardless of gender or race. One can “slice and dice” the data in 100 different ways and the result is the same. Higher education access, aspiration (or expectation), and achievement correlates precisely with statistically identical results to Adjusted Gross Income of the individual or family. The only outlier is low income Hispanic people and is most likely the result of cultural differences, particularly for first generation post secondary students.

photo4One of the largest myths utterly destroyed by the data is some sort of correlation to culture for Black and Hispanic people. The myth is largely promulgated by long-standing cultural stereotyping of academic abilities. In fact the data shows that regardless of socio-economic level, Black and Hispanic students achieve at far higher levels than White students. The same holds true for women when compared to men regardless of race or ethnicity. Artificially applying stereotypes in higher education is a horrendous injustice to all students.

Having laid out the foundation, it’s time to get to the “meat.” At socio-economic levels below $20,000 annually (less than living income), aspiration to education levels and careers above a certificate or diploma is understandably low, and drop-out or stop-out probability is relatively high (think back to Maslow’s needs). Surprisingly, there is high motivation to achieve among female, Black, and Hispanic students despite stop-outs largely forced by economic reasons.

In the annual income range of $20,000 to $40,000, academic and career aspirations begin to increase with more students targeting two and four year degrees. Although still present, the gap between aspiration and achievement begins to decrease for all students. In most cases, students in the gap area will at least temporarily shift aspiration to a lower level of academic achievement. Stop-outs still remain a problem for time-frame achievement, particularly if annual income dips due to external factors.

photo6The good news comes at the $40,000 to $60,000 annual income level, and the change is amazingly dramatic; in most cases students begin to actually achieve above their original aspirations. Most notable is that women, and Black and Hispanic students become “over achievers.” It’s a fact that destroys every cultural myth erroneously prevalent in our society.

Now let’s put this knowledge into 2015 terms and the current political landscape. First, it’s abundantly clear that poverty and anything less than a living wage will throw a significant part of the population into a position where higher education achievement is tenuous at best–economic parity is an imperative. Second, spiraling higher education costs (including punitive and often predatory financing) effectively reduces annual income levels with a resultant negative effect on achievement. Third, we need to establish a government devoid of systemic political, legal, and judicial systems that continue to promulgate social disparity, and suppress income levels and opportunities. Given those facts, it’s time for every voter to carefully examine each candidate’s positions (local, state, and national), select the best, and then actively work to put those candidates into office. There is little doubt that the current status quo is disastrous and must be changed.

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