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Do Higher Ed Budget Cuts Mean Even Lesser Access for Underrepresented Students?

As COVID-19 forces schools to slice their budgets, let's take a look at existing funding disparities in higher education.

Photo by PBS

It’s no secret that low-income students, and students from more diverse backgrounds face the biggest challenges paying for college. Not only that, but schools that enroll greater numbers of these students actually see less funding per student than a top-tier research university, or its predominantly white counterparts. Access to higher education has always been an issue, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced even more cuts by institutions. Who were some of the people most affected by COVID forced budget cuts? Low-income and first-generation college students.

Even when students from these demographic groups attend college, the graduation rate is significantly lower than that of their peers, mostly as a result of not being able to afford college, thus hindering their degree progress. A study done by the Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania yielded alarming results. Despite an increase in overall enrollment, only 21% of low-income and first-generation students will obtain a bachelor’s degree within 6 years, compared to 66% of non low-income or first-generation students. This is likely due to not only a lack of available funding for the student to obtain a bachelor’s degree in 4 years, but also what the study called “systemic barriers”. Additionally, there was a correlation found between socioeconomic status and the quality of school a student attended. High school students from the highest socioeconomic brackets had 8 times the chance of going to a highly or moderately selective college as those in the lower SES (socioeconomic status) brackets. While more first-generation and low-income students are attending college than ever before, these demographic groups still lag behind the bulk of other students. Although college participation rates for low-income students have increased from 32% to 51% since 1990, this number is still over 24% less than participation rates in the highest socioeconomic brackets. The United States has issued Pell Grants to qualified students for decades, but even students on Pell Grants aren’t guaranteed to attend a top school. One potential reason for this is that most Pell Grant recipients come from areas with lackluster K-12 educational resources. In college admissions, competitive schools have set academic and testing standards that are more difficult for candidates from these communities to meet due to a lack of equitable investment. In addition, Pell Grants are not available to graduate students, potentially restricting access to a graduate education for some students. Percentages ranged from 17% at very selective institutions, to 67% at for-profit colleges. Furthermore, Pell Grants don’t cover the same amount of college costs as it has in the past, having been on a constant decline since 1980. In the mid-1970s, a Pell Grant covered as much as 67% of a student’s average college cost. In 2018-19, the largest Pell Grant Covered only 25%, a shocking change in numbers that reflects the growing price of college. In addition, Pell Grants are not available to graduate students, potentially restricting access to a graduate education for some students

The increasing price of college puts low-income and first-generation students at even more of a disadvantage. A study done in 2016-17 showed that 54% of Black, Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Pacific Islander students attending public colleges were enrolled in community colleges, compared to only 23% of students attending schools offering master’s degrees being from those demographic groups. Despite the large number of diverse students in two-year colleges, community colleges in 2016-17 had only 61 cents to spend for every dollar an institution offering master’s degrees has. The difference in spending per student between community colleges and four-year institutions is an issue that needs to be addressed, especially when aiming to bridge the educational gap between diverse students and white students.

Even other four-year institutions like HBCUs don’t see the same funding and resources given to predominantly white institutions. While the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 obligated states to treat HBCUs the same as PWIs, they have not done so for as David Sheppard puts it, “principally because neither the legislatures or governors of those respective states deemed it important to do so”. Sheppard says that states instead barely match funding for HBCUs while spending significantly more for flagship, predominantly white universities. Students aside, HBCUs also suffer from having lesser equipment and facilities necessary for performing the research that schools such as MIT and Johns Hopkins do. Sheppard added that “it’s difficult to compete with primarily white institutions for agency R&D dollars when you don’t have the money to develop and sustain the research infrastructure needed to compete or retain the faculty doing that very work”.

Disparities in access and quality of education have always been a pressing issue. But in recent years, it has become even more important to ensure diverse populations have the opportunity to receive a high quality education. With many low-income and first-generation students failing to receive the same opportunity as their peers who are not at a socioeconomic disadvantage, taking a deeper dive into why this is the case is important. A lack of funding at community colleges and HBCUs doesn’t help the students enrolled at those institutions either, showing that there is still a lot of work to be done in the fight for equity in higher education.


About Leadership Brainery

Leadership Brainery is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt pipeline organization closing opportunity and wealth gaps by increasing the number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and first-generation college students being accepted and enrolled in postgraduate education programs and recruited into high-wage careers. We believe that with greater resources and access to inclusive networks and advanced education, underserved communities can leverage higher-wage careers to establish financial stability and reinvest in their communities to create generational prosperity, thus closing wealth and opportunity gaps. To learn more, visit

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