Back to College Access & Admissions

What Are Some of the Barriers to College Access

Photo credit: Chaliya/Adobe Stock

Back to College Access & Admissions


The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal highlighted the illegal ways that significant wealth can secure a student’s spot at an elite college. It was just the latest in a long and tawdry history of money, influence and connections overriding academic readiness in some students’ college acceptances.

But a student doesn’t have to come from a wealthy or prestigious family to have an advantage in the admissions process. Middle-class students have access to resources that can help students move more easily through the system, such as SAT and ACT preparation classes, college counseling beyond a school’s guidance counselors, and paid help with admissions essays. (This EWA Radio episode discusses whether colleges should focus on recruiting well-rounded students rather than those with padded resumes, based on a plea from admissions leaders at several top schools.)

Low-income students generally don’t have the same resources. This EWA Radio episode shows reporters how to “examine the underlying societal and institutional factors that fuel admissions inequities.”

The Guidance Gap

Nationally, the ratio of school counselors to students averages 455:1, far above the 250:1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. In many schools, counselors lack adequate training to coach students through the college admissions process. As a result, students who can’t get admissions advice elsewhere are left to navigate a confusing and frustrating system on their own. This disproportionately affects low-income students, many of whom come from families unfamiliar with the postsecondary system, and first-generation college students, who would be the first in their families to attend college (and, in some instances, to graduate from high school).

Read more about how the lack of school counselors affects students in this Hechinger Report series.

Read more about the guidance gap in this post from EWA.

Skepticism of the System

Despite the overwhelming evidence showing the value of a college degree, just 49 percent of Americans believe that it helps students find a good job and earn more money, according to a recent poll.

Much of that skepticism is due to the rising costs of college tuition. First-generation students may also have to combat doubts from their own families. Parents who did not attend college themselves may expect their children to start working right after high school and contribute to the “family system” rather than seeing the long-term benefits of college.


Low- and middle-income students are getting priced out of college.

As recently as the early 1980s, many top-notch public universities charged only nominal tuition. (UC Berkeley’s tuition in fall 1985 was less than $1,300 a year, for example, an amount a student could earn at a minimum wage job over the summer.) And through 1992, the federal Pell Grant (the nation’s largest need-based financial aid program) fully covered the average in-state tuition charged by public universities. (The maximum Pell grant in 1992 was $2,400, according to the College Board’s 2019 Trends in Student Aid report. The average tuition at public universities was $2,330, according to the College Board’s 2019 Trends in College Pricing report.)

But then states began cutting support to public universities, prompting schools to raise tuition to make up the difference. College costs rose much faster than inflation and wages as students demanded more services, and technology failed to deliver the kinds of cost savings seen in other sectors of the economy.

Meanwhile, financial aid has failed to keep pace with tuition. To fill in the affordability gaps, many students and families have turned to loans.

Read more about college affordability from EWA.

Get story ideas and resources for covering the student loan debt crisis from EWA.

See how student aid and college pricing have changed over time with the College Board’s reports.

Academic Readiness

Research shows many — and by some counts, most — high school students are not getting the preparation they need to handle college courses or trade schools. The biggest gaps in preparation seem to affect students of color, as well as those from low-income families.

College and career readiness indicators include certain coursework and line up with postsecondary entrance requirements, such as GPA, scores on college placement tests like the SAT and ACT, and participation in college-level coursework or curriculum, such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate classes.

And the numbers are grim for most of those indicators. Only 42 percent of American high school graduates met the college and career readiness benchmark on the SAT, according to data from the College Board. Those numbers are far smaller for certain groups when broken out by race.

More than a quarter of students who enroll in four-year colleges (and more than half of community college students) must take remedial courses to relearn high school material, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Many reasons for this lack of preparation for college work can be traced back to problems in the K-12 system. Almost half of high school graduates had no cohesive college- or career-prep curriculum while they were in high school, according to a report from Education Trust.

Access to AP classes has grown in the last 20 years, but black and Hispanic students are still underrepresented in these courses — either because they don’t enroll in courses they’re academically qualified to take or because their schools don’t offer the courses. Rural students, who make up one-fifth of all American public school students, are also less likely to have access to AP classes and to take AP exams than their urban and suburban counterparts.

Many schools are also reconsidering whether college entrance tests (the SAT and ACT) are the best measure of a student’s academic abilities. More than 1,000 colleges and universities have made SAT and ACT test scores optional in their admissions process. Critics say the entrance tests aren’t as good a measure of college success as other indicators, such as high school GPAs, and that the entrance tests discriminate against poor students who can’t afford private test-prep tutors. Proponents acknowledge that the tests shouldn’t be the sole factor used to judge a student’s academic ability. But they point out that they offer an objective way to evaluate a student’s background.

Read more about standards and testing from EWA.

Read more about academic readiness in Chalkbeat’s “Ready or Not” series.