Expanding Access and Opportunity

Expanding Access report cover

​Upward mobility remains an elusive dream for many Americans, and social and economic advancement are often unattainable for working class families. Given the unique role American colleges and universities historically have played in facilitating social mobility, the White House and other prominent policy makers have called attention to the issue of educational access for low-income and first-generation students. Indeed, the current disparity in higher education access and success in the United States prevents many first-generation and low-income students from realizing the benefits of social mobility into the middle class. Moreover, when a nation fails to educate wide swaths of its population, its competitiveness on the global stage is diminished.

If the United States is to succeed as a nation in reducing educational disparity, restoring social mobility, and retaining national competitiveness, it must make every effort to ensure that low-income and first-generation students have access to higher education and the support systems they need to obtain a college degree. This objective will require understanding the characteristics and challenges unique to low-income and first-generation student populations, as well as the types of educational environments best suited to serve these students.

Not only do first-generation and low-income students experience hurdles in accessing higher education, they also tend to be less engaged in their college experience and less likely to persist to degree than other students. With public resources scarce, policy makers and funders must direct support to those institutions that are most effective in admitting, retaining, and graduating first-generation and low-income students. Often overlooked in strategies to promote college attainment of underrepresented students are small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities.

This report demonstrates that students of all academic and social backgrounds attend smaller private colleges. Moreover, these institutions provide educational opportunity to students with varying degrees of academic preparation, not just those who have had access to the best high schools and socioeconomic support structures. First-generation and low-income students receive an excellent education at smaller private colleges, which provide a more personalized, rigorous, and engaged college experience than larger public universities provide—and at a fraction of the cost to society.

​Council of Indendent Colleges
By P. Jesse Rine and Jennifer Eliason
March 2015

Student Demographics