Author’s Note: This edition is excerpted from The Axis of Access: A Quantitative Ethnography of
Presidential Discourse on the Construct of College Access in the United States. The full 254-page
manuscript was published in April 2022. Key takeaways will be shared in this series throughout the year.
College access has been defined by higher education researchers McDonough et al.
(1997) as “the process whereby educators, policy makers, and administrators attempt to ensure a college education for all who aspire to that goal” (p. 297). U.S. society promotes the attainment of a 4-year college degree as an aim related to financial reward in lucrative careers (Shumar,1997). Federal communications on college access contribute to this perception of value, yet the construct of college access offers no solid linguistic ground for those inquiring more deeply about its logic, meaning, and implications. Lexical semantics surrounding what is commonly referred to in U.S. higher education circles as the college access space expand into numerous levels of connotation meriting exploration. Conceptual semantics applied to the cognitive structure of contextual meaning within those constructs can illuminate critical thinking and perhaps, as a result, policy (Blommaert & Bulcaen, 2000). Among the several interrelated opaque or misunderstood ideas are those of college access, college eligibility, and college readiness.
Beginning with the earliest colleges in the U.S. circa 1636, when the Massachusetts Bay
colonial legislature founded Harvard University, institutions of higher education admitted only
males until 1837. At that time, Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke so that females were able to
attend college in the U.S. Generally these were privileged daughters of wealthy families.
Following the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862 and 1890 the earliest idea of a public
promise of higher education access for a broader demographic of Americans came into play.
In some of the earliest U.S. rhetoric about access, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act’s author,
Justin Smith Morrill, stated the Act’s purpose was to build a college in every state “upon a sure
and perpetual foundation, accessible to all” (Benson & Boyd, 2015).
Economic structures of the U.S. higher education system have nonetheless evolved to call
into question whether poor or working-class students are able to access its benefits. Although an educated populace seems to constitute a public good, without individual means to pay for tuition and other fees millions of U.S. students every year are stymied from applying. Whereas states once footed the bill, that previous investment in public institutions designed to promote access has decreased significantly since 2000 (Cochrane & Szabo-Kubitz, 2016). Compounding this, the federal role in promoting equitable education is limited by the 10th Amendment, which states that the “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (U.S. Constitution). Most education policy is decided at the state and local levels, but when it comes to the student debt crisis in the U.S., significant strain occurs federally (Tierney & Venegas, 2009).
Regulations do, however, pass down from the U.S. Department of Education to dictate
rules such as the ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act enacted in 2015. This, along with
shifting market factors over the past 20 years, has led to state disinvestment in colleges and
universities. As recently as 2008, tuition accounted for only 35.8% of public higher-education
revenue across the nation. During 2017, 28 states leaned chiefly on students, not on taxpayers,
for tuition dollars. Vermont’s system of public universities and colleges drew 86.6% of its tuition
revenue from students, the most extreme example of this trend. At $72.3 billion nationwide,
students have recently accounted for an average of 46.4% of overall revenue for public higher
education, and those numbers only increase for private colleges and universities (Bauman, 2018)
The impact of decreasing incentives in funding for states falls short of ensuring that students of
low socioeconomic status (SES) can understand or navigate the realities of successfully
becoming eligible, ready, and able to afford higher education.
The burden of covering costs for higher education is now America’s second largest debt.
Only consumer home mortgages are more costly. The Federal Reserve reports that average
monthly student loan payments increased from 2005 to 2016, going from $227 to $393. A typical U.S. student earning a 4-year degree owes at least $20,000 more than they did 13 years ago (Woodworth, 2017). This debt varies by age group, as seen in Figure 1, with students ages 18-44 bearing the largest burden. Debt at any age presents problems; for U.S. students under the age of 30, life goals such as marriage, purchasing a home, or starting a family are impeded by such fiscal liability.
In 2018, the total enrollment of U.S. undergraduates was 16,600,000, each of whom paid
at public institutions an average net price of $13,700; they spent $22,100 at private for-profit
institution, and $27,000 for private nonprofit institutions. That year, institutions awarded
1,000,000 associate’s degrees, 2,000,000 bachelor’s degrees, 820,000 master’s degrees, and
184,000 doctoral degrees (Woodworth, 2021). The financial burden borne by those lacking
information to help them successfully pay for a bachelor’s degree constitutes the top-most layer
of a multi-faceted problem.
Internationally, each country establishes its own relationship with the construct of higher
education and its access, with economic and cultural drivers impacting policy implementation
across time. As in the U.S., many acknowledge that college is not the sole pathway to success
(Foust, 2016). Some cultural perspectives, in fact, see the U.S.’s preoccupation with college
pathways as patronizing. The notion that disadvantaged populations without higher education
access are de facto on a lesser path can run counter to sociocultural values (Marginson & Dang,
2017). Stateside, a defense of alternate pathways, in particular CTE—Career and Technical
Education—has found a powerful renaissance funded by $1.2 billion in federal monies flowing
into school districts even as college access remains constrained. Cross-national corporate
implications as jobs move from shore to shore in an increasingly digital economy contribute to
the strain of global economics. The college access equation as presented in U.S. federal rhetoric
crosses borders with global repercussions.
Bauman, D. (2018). Who foots most of the bill for public colleges? In 28 states it’s students. The
Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/who-foots-most-of-
Benson, M. T., & Boyd, H. R. (2015). The public university: Recalling higher education’s
democratic purpose. Thought & Action, 31, 69–84. https://www.semanticscholar.org
Blommaert, J., & Bulcaen, C. (2000). Critical discourse analysis. Annual Review of
Anthropology, 29(1), 447–466. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.29.1.447
Cochrane, D., & Szabo-Kubitz, L. (2016). States of denial: Where community college students
lack access to federal student loans (ED571625). ERIC.
Foust, G. (2016). Career-ready for the world: Internationalizing high school college and career
readiness counseling. Global Education Journal, (1), 63–77.
Marginson, S., & Dang, T. K. A. (2017). Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory in the context of
globalization. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 37(1), 116–129.
McDonough, P. M., Korn, J. S., & Yamasaki, E. (1997). Access, equity, and the privatization of
college counseling. The Review of Higher Education, 20(3), 297–317.doi:10.1353/rhe.1997.0004
Shumar, W. (1997). College for sale: A critique of the commodification of higher education.
Tierney, W. G., & Venegas, K. M. (2009). Finding money on the table: Information, financial
aid, and access to college. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(4), 363–388.
U.S. Constitution, amend. X.
Woodworth, J. L. (2017). The condition of education.
Woodworth, J. L. (2021). The condition of education: loans for undergraduate students.
https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cub.aspCopyright 2022 © All Rights Reserved 6
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