Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Diversity, College Costs, and Postsecondary Opportunity: An Examination of the Financial Nexus between College Choice and Persistence for African Americans and Whites

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Diversity, College Costs, and Postsecondary Opportunity: An Examination of the Financial Nexus between College Choice and Persistence for African Americans and Whites

Article excerpt

Questions about how student financial aid and the costs of attending college influence educational opportunity for diverse racial groups have lurked beneath the surface of the policy debates about higher education for decades. When the Higher Education Act (HEA) was passed in 1965, there was a general acceptance that the federal government had a role to play in equalizing educational opportunity. At that time, the civil rights of African Americans were a concern of the majority of Americans, as evidenced by the many Great Society programs of the period. However, since 1980, the federal commitment to need-based grants has contracted as a result of shifting political priorities (McPherson & Schapiro, 1991), if not as a result of a breakdown in the old consensus about equal opportunity. More recently, the federal courts have narrowed the acceptable remedies in desegregation litigation (St. John & Hossler, 1998) and have brought race into question as an explicit consideration in the awarding of student aid (Strope & Wells, 1998). In this context, it is vital that we begin to build a better understanding of the relationship between the costs of college, student financial aid, and the postsecondary opportunities for racially diverse groups.

However, the analysis of the effects of prices and student aid is complicated by a broad critique of the old progressive assumptions. On the one hand, some economists continue to raise questions about the efficacy of student aid (Kane, 1995). Indeed, this line of inquiry has led some to question whether states and the federal government should invest more in student financial aid, even after decades of decline in grant aid (Heller, 1997; St. John, 2003b). In contrast, other economists and higher education researchers, along with cultural-capital theorists, have begun to question some of the basic assumptions behind this position (McDonough, Korn, & Yamasaki, 1997; Paulsen, 2001a, 2001b; St. John & Paulsen, 2001). These newer perspectives offer a different vantage point from which to critique the new direction of public policy in higher education (e.g., decline in affirmative action, merit-based over need-based aid, loans over grant aid), but they do little to combat the decline in federal and state student aid.

This article examines the role of the costs of college and student financial aid in promoting postsecondary opportunity for diverse groups. First, we examine theory and research that might inform an assessment of the effects of student financial aid on the educational opportunities for diverse racial groups. Then we describe our methods and present the findings. We used the financial-nexus model (Paulsen & St. John, 2002; St. John, Paulsen, & Starkey, 1996) to assess the effects of student financial aid on college choice and persistence by African Americans and Whites. Finally, based on these analyses, we consider the understanding of the relationship between financial aid and the educational opportunities of diverse racial groups that emerges from this study.

Background

Previous studies of the financial nexus have examined all students enrolled as undergraduates (St. John, Paulsen, & Starkey, 1996), students enrolled in public colleges compared to students in private colleges (Paulsen & St. John, 1997), and students across income groups (Paulsen & St. John, 2002). This study completes the full set of nexus studies on diverse groups of students enrolled in 1986-1987, by comparing how financial choices made by Whites and African Americans influenced their persistence. Given the age of this data, it is important to reconsider persistence by these populations, an issue we discuss after reviewing our logical approach.

The Logical Approach

Researchers have started examining the ways perceptions of financial factors (i.e., college costs and student aid) formed in the enrollment process influence eventual persistence decisions. …

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