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Institute for Higher Education Policy

People live in a fast-paced world in which, as the saying goes, the only constant is change. Like the rest of society, the American higher education system is grappling with changes that are significantly altering the landscape. This report surveys the higher education landscape and highlights a number of facts about the various converging trends. Several of these trends point to decreasing access and success for students from certain backgrounds, with the overall effect of less opportunity for some students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. On the financial aid side, federal, state, and institutional aid appears to be shifting toward academically based aid and away from the students with the most financial need. Because academically based aid disproportionately flows to White and more affluent students, it represents an expansion of the financial aid system that does not target students with the highest financial need. Meanwhile, strategies that colleges use to compete for students and increase prestige are often detrimental to low-income students and students of color. Nevertheless, there are some encouraging trends occurring in the postsecondary education system. For example, compared to three decades ago, aggregate participation in college for low-income students and students of color has increased, total dollars have increased for both need-based and non-need-based state aid programs, and federal financial aid continues to increase in real terms. However, these positive trends do not take into account the impacts on specific groups of students. Considering each trend in isolation mutes the cumulative effect. The points at which these trends converge and interact with each other have been missing from the big-picture dialogue about higher education in America. The magnitude of the convergence of these trends is impossible to predict in numerical terms. But the overall effect is easy to see: For those who have never been well served by the higher education system, there is a serious likelihood that their college opportunities will be further constrained in the future. If current trends continue unchecked, one can expect that: (1) More financial aid will flow to students and families in the upper income categories; (2) For all low-income students except the very highest achievers, financial aid will be less effective in the face of rising tuition; (3) On the whole, higher education will grow less affordable, and those who do enter higher education will be forced to take on more debt; and (4) Social stratification will increase, to the detriment of society as a whole. Advisory Panel Meeting, June 28, 2004 is appended. (Contains 19 figures and 175 footnotes.) [This report was written with the assistance of Alisa F. Cunningham.]

Descriptors: Higher Education, Student Financial Aid, State Aid, Financial Needs, Social Stratification, Low Income Groups, Colleges, Ethnic Groups, Educational Improvement, White Students, College Students, Educational Trends, Tuition, Enrollment, Tests, Scores, Incentives, Scholarships, Early Intervention, Surveys, Academic Persistence, Academic Achievement

Institute for Higher Education Policy. 1825 K Street Suite 720, Washington, DC 20006. Tel: 202-861-8223; Fax: 202-861-9307; e-mail: institute[at]; Web site:

Autor: Couturier, Lara K.


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