Social Class and College Costs: Examining the Financial Nexus between College Choice and Persistence

By Paulsen, Michael B.; John, Edward P. | Journal of Higher Education, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Social Class and College Costs: Examining the Financial Nexus between College Choice and Persistence


Paulsen, Michael B., John, Edward P., Journal of Higher Education


During the past two decades there have been fundamental changes in the ways states and the federal government finance higher education (McPherson & Schapiro, 1998; Mumper, 1996; Paulsen, 1998; Paulsen & Smart, 2001; St. John, 1994). The federal government has shifted from using grants as the primary means of promoting postsecondary opportunity to using loans for this purpose. Decreases in state support for public colleges and universities have led to increases in tuition charges, which have shifted a larger portion of the burden of paying for college from the general public to students and their families (Breneman & Finney, 1997; Mumper, 1996; Paulsen, 1991, 2000). Thus, the last two decades of the twentieth century can appropriately be characterized as a period of high tuition, high aid, but with an emphasis on loans rather than grants. How have these changes in the costs of college influenced the opportunities of students in different income groups to attain a higher education? To address this question we examined the ways that college costs affect the college-choice and persistence decisions of students in four different income groups.

The idea that research on college students should focus on social class represents a departure from mainstream research on college students, which focuses primarily on students of traditional college-going age and background (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991) and is centered in traditional values. This study extends an alternative approach to the study of college students based on the student-choice construct that has evolved over the past decade (Paulsen & St. John, 1997; St. John, 1994; St. John, Paulsen, & Starkey, 1996). The new approach presented in this study explicitly addresses the diverse patterns of student choice in its examination of the ways in which the effects of financial factors on students' choices differ across social classes. To provide background for this study, the following sections present the student-choice perspective that guides the study, describe the salient features of the financial nexus between college choice and persistence decisions, and explain why a focus on social class is an important step in efforts to understand the role of finances in student choice.

The Research Literature and Conceptual

Framework that Inform the Study

The Student Choice Perspective

Research on college students has been dominated by the research traditions of developmental and change theories (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). These research traditions are primarily centered in the values of students of traditional college-going age and background and neither can be easily adapted to the study of the new, contemporary college aspirants, who are increasingly diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. It is important to reflect briefly on the limitations of these traditional approaches before presenting student-choice theory as an alternative.

The limitations of traditional models. One of the dominant traditions in college student research is student development theory (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991), which started with the study of students of traditional college-going age and background (e.g., Chickering, 1969; Perry, 1970). This approach was highly compatible with the characteristics and experiences of traditional students, but is not directly applicable to the college experiences of many of the new aspirants to college, an increasingly-large proportion of whom are minorities and older students. Minority students have different backgrounds and experiences before they attend college, compared to the middle-class students who were used as a basis for the developmental theories, while older students have already experienced and passed through many of the developmental sequences that are the focus of traditional stage theories of development.

Developmental theory is also limited because it has few direct linkages to matters of public policy. …

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