It’s tempting to think that America has largely solved its problems surrounding access to postsecondary education. The rate at which recent high school graduates enroll in college is around an all-time high. There are more Americans who have started college—but have not finished—than Americans who have dropped out of high school. These trends have increasingly helped shift postsecondary education policy discussions toward issues of retention and completion.
While getting college students to graduation is critical, new federal data show that the United States still fails miserably at providing equitable access to learning beyond high school, particularly in terms of socio-economic status. Students from the lowest levels of socio-economic status (SES) enroll in college at a rate that’s 60 percent the level of their best-off peers. When they do enroll, they are far more likely to attend a nonselective college or pursue something less than a bachelor’s degree. This is particularly striking for black students in the highest SES group, who are still half as likely to attend a highly selective college as their white peers. And this story does not hinge on academic ability: The least-affluent students with good grades and scores on an assessment of math skills enroll in college at about the same rate as the best-off students with middling academic accomplishments…..