For several centuries, college education has functioned as a tool for upward mobility—a gateway to socioeconomic success in various forms, including financial gain, career satisfaction and specialized knowledge.
As a result, in many marginalized and underserved communities, college has been heralded as the ultimate source of stability.
In such contexts, the schooling process is oversimplified: apply, get accepted, graduate, then find a job. Much less often do we recognize or even discuss the extensive barriers that prevent us from reaching the academic finish line.
The reality is that the same gateways can gatekeep, and higher education is largely inaccessible to entire groups of people.
The problem itself is complex. Middle class students are getting squeezed out of higher education because they just barely miss the qualifications for government grants, yet they can’t cut the university a check the way that richer families can.
Before students can even make it to financial aid, though, many must spend hundreds of dollars to supplement their applications.
According to the U.S. News & World Report, the average undergraduate application costs about $40 each, and the average graduate application cost is closer to $77.
Combined with the cost of housing deposits, campus visits and standardized tests like the ACT, SAT and GRE, a lot of students can’t even afford to apply.
I will say that some of the rebuttals to this argument are valid—people with financial need can apply for various waivers or reductions and can also contact college admissions offices to negotiate their prices.
However, we should always acknowledge that not everyone will know their options.
Most first-generation students, for example, wouldn’t have anyone in their family to help them, and because of this situation, they have fewer people to encourage them to continue their education in the first place.
In fact, one of the most prominent determining factors of whether students decide to apply to college is their parents’ education level.
A report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) stated that less than 45% of people expect to attend a four-year institution if their parents have a high school diploma or less. This number rises to about 81% for the children of people with graduate degrees.
As with many issues, the overarching concern here is one of access and privilege.
In a publication by Boston College, they outlined various factors affecting access to education, including parental income, parental education, personal aspiration, supportive agents, financial aid and comfort with debt.
This is true even in graduate school application cycles.
Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but not knowing how to navigate the graduate school system was one of the biggest reasons that I was so against it.
All I could think about was how much money an extra six years of education would add to my already massive loan, and how my top choice had an application fee that was nearly $100 by itself.
This scenario begs the question: What should we do? What can we do?
And truthfully, I don’t have all the answers.
As a citizen and student, my first suggestion would be for people in the higher education system to more actively embrace students from underrepresented backgrounds.
I was lucky in that my professors saw potential in me, supported me, encouraged me and wrote letters for me when I needed them. They unknowingly filled in the gap that my upbringing left, and they helped connect me to resources I didn’t know about.
Having such a strong in-school support system gives me hope for the college students of the future; for the people, much like myself, who just need a little push to start.
The university is the perfect place to cultivate these oppression-conscious ways of being. It’s up to us to take advantage.