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Inequality at the UI

BY SIMEON TALLEY | FEBRUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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At its core, public higher education is meant to serve as an engine of social mobility. State universities offer the hope to millions that, irrespective of income, the college classroom can be a dynamic place with students from all walks of life learning alongside one other.

And this in turn creates a fairer and more equitable society. A society that can draw upon a broad and diverse crop of talent to lead and manage its institutions. Beyond advances in technology and medicine, the democratizing of society is what we understand progress to be in our modern era.

The University of Iowa ranks fairly well among public schools in this area, but over the years, it has seen the percentage of students enrolled from low-income families decline.

The Pell Grant makes it possible for many students from low-income families to attend college and, as a result, is an excellent way to measure how well a given university is serving low-income students. Unlike other forms of financial aid, it is awarded solely on the base of family income and estimated family contribution. According to the Education Trust, in 2004-05, 60 percent of all Pell recipients in the United States came from families earning $20,000 or less.

Using the Pell Grant as a measurement to determine income status, only 17.4 percent of UI students in 2007 were Pell Grant recipients — compared with 40.3 percent statewide — according to Opportunity Adrift, a report highlighting equity in higher education by the Education Trust. This puts the UI in the bottom quartile of all flagship colleges and universities.

In fact, the number of students receiving Pell Grants at the UI has decreased. In 2004, 18.6 percent of students were using Pell Grants to finance their college education. In 1992, 20.4 percent of UI students were using Pell Grants.

Contrast that with 38.8 percent in 2004 and 35.3 percent in 1992 for the state. While Iowa colleges and universities overall have seen an increase in low-income students, it appears that the UI is bucking this trend.

If education is to serve as the great equalizer in society, is the UI opening its doors to the broadest cross-section of students possible?

We are all familiar with the problems of high schools that serve concentrations of low-income or minority students. Those schools will often be afflicted with a host of problems that affluent schools couldn’t imagine. Yet despite these problems, the number of high-achieving low-income and minority students attending college has increased.

So we don’t just have a problem with student preparedness at the high-school level. We have important questions to ask about how this institution uses its resources to attract students from low-income backgrounds.

The economic environment that we find ourselves in has made financing college challenging for millions of students and families all across the country. It has put a particular strain on students coming from low-income backgrounds. Moreover, wealth for has grown even more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

Maybe we shouldn’t care that public universities specifically draw from all races and classes. Yet public education is thought of as an institution that has enabled social mobility. Its public good is that, unlike other institutions in society, it shouldn’t matter who your parents are or what community you come from.

The UI has become a more racially and ethnically diverse institution; ethnic minorities make up around 10 percent of the university’s enrollment.

Still, as the numbers show, some troubling class divisions remain..


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