New education secretary calls higher ed admissions a 'caste system'

A new Education Department report highlights the need to better support Pell Grant recipients

U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. warned of a growing divide in higher education between wealthy and low-income students at an Education Department forum on Thursday, Jamaal Abdul-Alim reports for Diverse Issues in Higher Education

King praised colleges and universities that excel at admitting and graduating Pell Grant recipients. However, he also said the U.S. is becoming a "caste system of colleges and universities," in which affluent students enjoy better college preparation and higher rates of admission to elite institutions, while low-income students miss out on such privileges. 

Study aims to hold schools responsible for upward mobility

He pointed to statistics showing that students from the wealthiest families in the U.S. make up 72% of the student bodies at top colleges, while only 3% of students from the poorest families do so.

"When it comes to affordability, we need to recognize that when poor students borrow at least half their annual household income just to attend college, we are dangerously close to college obstructing, rather than driving, social mobility in this country," King said.

The forum coincided with the Education Department's release of a new report that highlights institutions doing an excellent job of graduating Pell Grant recipients at an affordable cost.

According to the report, while many institutions do "impressive and inspiring work" to increase college access for low-income students, "some remain beyond the economic reach of many low-income students, others provide access without doing enough to help students complete their degrees, and still others fail to prepare students for good jobs."

The report noted that only half of Pell Grant recipients earn their bachelor's degree within six years, compared with 68% of non-Pell Grant recipients. 

Tackling the challenge of persistence among Pell Grant recipients

"These trends tell us there is more work to do to help low-income students pursue their educational goals and earn essential skills and credentials," the report stated (Abdul-Alim, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 3/24). 

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