What is the current status of the institution of higher education in America?

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Answered by: Sean, An Expert in the US Liberal Politics - General Category
To put it mildly, it's been a tumultuous decade to be an American.

For reasons that range from a pair or wars that are at best controversial and at worst misguided to the universally devastating collapse of our economic infrastructure at the hands of those who were supposed to be its overseers, our society has been forced to adapt its priorities in ways that call into question the very values this nation has predicated its existence upon since its foundation. The ethics of fairness and equal opportunity have been arrayed in direct contrast to those of capitalism and the desire for personal success; in short, we have reached a crisis of identity between provision for the good of the self and for the good of the whole.

There is one particular battleground upon which the crossroads has become a precipice, and the cause that any further missteps might send tumbling into oblivion is one that everyone--regardless of age, party, or income tax bracket, holds dear: the American Dream.

That battleground is the institution of higher education, and the reality is that with all the other distractions holding the gaze of the American public over the past decade, the system by which we can most effectively address the prevalent issues within our society--namely, an inability to close the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor--has been largely neglected. The result is a harsh truth: the soaring costs of higher education, combined with the diminishing incomes of the nation's working class, have slanted the table and established nearly unconquerable odds for the students and families this society needs to beat those odds the most. The game is fixed, because the system is broken.

The facts, now: The chances that a student at an elite American college will run into a member of a statistically wealthy family, as opposed to a statistically working class family, are 40-to-1. This is in all likelihood because since 2001, between 10% and 12% of students at those elite colleges come from families in the lowest 40% of income. In the same time span, the population of students from families in the highest 20% of income has held steady at about 70%.

The numbers speak for themselves: wealth is a determining factor in accessibility to a college education. But the advantages go beyond a family's pure ability--or lack thereof--to afford the astronomical costs of tuition, room and board at a given institution of higher education. Imagine, if you will, the agonizing frustration of a bright, deserving young student who watches a less capable, less diligent classmate leave her underfunded, over-enrolled public school system for the repute and undeniable advantage of a private school. Imagine watching a wealthier, better connected high school friend bolster their resume with an unpaid internship at a glitzy law or public relations practice--one you were more qualified and better suited for, but were unable to obtain because you simply could not afford to go eight weeks without a paycheck. The list goes on--SAT preparation courses and the opportunity for re-takes ad infinitum ($50 registration fee, per test); college consultants with countless connections and relationships in admissions offices across the country; legacy calls, and the promise of alumni donations. The advantages are countless, and nigh insurmountable.

There is little question, then, that steps must be taken to level the playing field if America would seek to maintain any shred of credibility as the shining example of egalitarianism we claim to be.

The personal and financial benefits of a college education are well documented. If a low income student graduates from an institution of higher education, the odds that their children will do the same increase by up to 80%. To perpetuate a system in which all Americans have equal opportunity, and to dissolve the growing income disparity that threatens to bring this nation's progress to a grinding and prolific halt, a system in which individuals are denied access to higher education based on their family's income level can no longer be deemed acceptable. The time has come for our nation to renew its commitment to equality and socioeconomic mobility, and the institution of higher education is ground zero.

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