Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality, by Gary A. Berg

Ashgate, 2010, xiv + 198 pp, hbk, 1 409 40154 4, £55.

In the United States of America, ‘college is a principle mechanism through which privilege is passed on from parents to children’ (p.3), and Gary Berg’s study – strong on both quantitative and qualitative data – shows why. The school system doesn’t provide sufficient support for those students whose home backgrounds have disadvantaged their learning and diminished their ambitions; universities’ admissions policies favour the already advantaged, partly because only the wealthy plan the sports which can give students an admissions advantage, especially at elite universities; because financial aid policies are inadequate; and because members of low income groups are more likely to drop out of college because there isn’t adequate support in relation to problems which they might be carrying with them, particularly fragile self-esteem. A chapter which finds that gender and race interlock with low income to create compound disadvantage, and that the rolling back of positive discrimination policies, at the same time as universities have sought wealthy international students in order to appear diverse, is taking the country even further from inclusivity. A case study of a student summer school rams home the point. A chapter on the public image of universities shows that the public no longer expects them to offer social mobility in the way in which it used to be hoped that they would; and the final substantial chapter demonstrates that a degree has less impact on lifetime earnings for a poor student than for a wealthy one, and suggests that the causal link isn’t between family income and future success but is rather between parental characteristics and both quality parenting and income, both of which then have consequences for the would be student. A final chapter reiterates the chapters’ conclusions and suggests that higher education needs to be redesigned for low income students, that universities need to serve their students rather than achieve prestige, and that the United States needs to become a more equal society: ‘America is far to comfortably unequal’ (p.164). A major reason for this inequality is the tax system, in which substantial mortgage cost tax allowances advantage the already wealth and don’t benefit the poor.

This passionate and well-researched study show just how many factors determine a student’s preparedness for university admission and their ability to benefit from higher education. Their own and their family’s incomes are just two of those factors, but these are two factors that a government can do something about. The UK’s new higher education funding regime is going to provide us with more of the difficulties outlined in this book. Again, families’ and students’ incomes are partly functions of government policy. The only conclusion to draw is that the funding of higher education and family income maintenance are policy areas that need to be integrated with each other far more than they are at the moment.