High-achieving students from lesser means offer the most stark example of the pernicious effect of money and class on college opportunity. The new data show that the students in the lowest SES quintile with the highest scores on a math skills assessment developed for the survey enroll in college at a rate 18 percentage points lower than their peers in the highest SES quintile with similarly high scores.
But it is important to look beyond the high-achieving, low-SES students. Otherwise, it’s easy to ignore the extent to which the postsecondary education system closes off opportunities for students who come from less privileged backgrounds unless they have top-notch academic outcomes—even as wealthier students with so-so grades and test scores benefit from the opportunity to attend college.
Eighty-eight percent of the students in the highest SES quintile with a high school GPA from 2.0 to 2.99 enrolled in college, compared with just 61 percent of students in the lowest SES quintile with the same marks. Similarly, 73 percent of the students in the highest SES quintile with the lowest math test scores enrolled in college—nearly double the 41 percent of students in the lowest SES quintile.