Class Dismissed: Rethinking Socio-Economic Status and Higher Education Attainment

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Omari Scott Simmons

Keeping higher education affordable and accessible for many Americans is an integral part of furthering the public good. Although legal scholars have given considerable attention to K–12 educational disparities as well as the constitutionality and fairness of admissions practices at selective higher education institutions, they have ignored significant barriers that limit higher education attainment for many low socio-economic status (SES) students. Similarly, the existing regulatory architecture, including federal, state, and institutional policies, inadequately addresses the higher education needs of low-SES students. This article responds to this significant gap in legal scholarship. Advancing higher education attainment for low-SES students presents a rare opportunity for the Obama administration to leave an enduring reform legacy much in the same way Roosevelt achieved with the GI Bill and Lincoln with the Morrill Act. The heightened focus on higher education attainment for low-SES students is also quite timely given the nation’s slow economic growth and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Fisher v. Texas. These factors, among others, have prompted higher education observers to consider the use of class as an alternative to the use of race in college admissions and beyond. In this legal, economic, and political environment, reforms targeting higher education attainment for low-SES students take on added significance. In response to these challenges, this Article proposes a more comprehensive K–16 framework to guide future reforms targeting higher education attainment for low-SES students. These reforms include: a rigorous K–12 education for a greater number of students, a transitional bridge between secondary school and higher education, college-level reforms from federal, state, and institutional actors, and a presidential commission exclusively targeting higher education equity.

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