Belmont Law Review


Too often, discussion of how best to promote greater and more equitable access to higher education in the United States centers on a single set of challenges when in fact they are many, varied, and interrelated. There is the challenge of student diversity: the student body at the most elite institutions does not look like the population of the nation as a whole. There is the burden of cost: the price of higher education both deters potential students and burdens those who must borrow to enroll, whether they graduate or not. There are disturbing disparities in standardized test scores: the admissions criteria used by institutions that are most selective disfavor applicants whose families earn lower incomes and who are African American or Latino. There is the performance of for-profit higher education providers: these institutions produce worse outcomes for students, in the form of low completion rates, greater debt burdens, and greater likelihood of default, and they disproportionately serve students who are poor and African American or Latino. There is the potentially regressive effect of so-called merit aid: financial aid practices used by competitive colleges and universities to improve their placement in rankings work against recruitment of students who have greater financial need and in favor of those with higher test scores, who tend to be those whose families have more wealth or higher incomes. The goal of this Essay is to map the terrain and suggest possible implications of relationships among race, class, institutional incentives, measures of merit, and debt for possible reform. To be clear, the Essay assumes that greater and more equitable access to higher education is the ultimate ambition of both federal policy and institutional practice. Equitable access to higher education opportunity is an appropriate and critical question for legal scholars. Lawmakers and courts have given shape to the architecture that makes opportunity more available to some and less available to others. Historically, legal challenges to exclusive practices of colleges and universities have opened the gates for members of marginalized and subordinated groups.And regardless of the usefulness of the courts, legislation has, will, and must implement reforms. Part I of this Essay examines the role race plays in access to higher education. Part II assesses the role of wealth. Part III discusses the implications of conventional assessments of merit. Part IV examines the potentially important role played by academic support to help enrolled students achieve graduation. Part V discusses the impact of borrowing and indebtedness. In conclusion, Part VI identifies political obstacles to effective reform informed by recognition of the relationships previously analyzed in the preceding parts.