Access to Higher Education: Barriers to Enrollment and Choice

  • Bridget Terry LongEmail author
Living reference work entry


College Enrollment Postsecondary Institution Academic Preparation College Access Tuition Price 
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Access refers to whether a student attends higher education. In other words, it is the question of whether a student is able to enroll in any postsecondary institution. Choice focuses more on the student’s particular selection of an institution. While most students are able to access at least some colleges for attendance, they may not have the opportunity to attend any institution (i.e., choice) due to barriers, such as affordability and academic preparation or achievement level (Long 2007). For example, in the United States, financial aid policy and open admissions standards make public, 2-year colleges accessible to all students, but not all students are able to attend the more expensive and selective 4-year universities. While governments have created policies and programs to bolster college access, there are growing concerns about barriers to choice due to the fact that there are differences in resources and outcomes for students by institution type (Long and Kurlaender 2009). Also, with better data being made available to track student persistence in college over time, there is acknowledgment that college access is not a sufficient indicator of increased education levels due to high rates of attrition, particularly among low-income students. In recent work, there is much more focus on whether students complete their intended postsecondary training and the policies that might support degree completion.


Trends during the last several decades document that college access has increased substantially in the United States. The percentage of students who recently completed high school and enrolled in college by the October immediately thereafter increased from 45% in 1960 to 69% in 2015 (US Department of Education 2016). Additional students choose to enter a postsecondary institution later in life leading to the fact that about three-fourths of Americans eventually enter college. In terms of choice, there is good information on how college enrollment is split between 4-year colleges and universities, which focus on awarding bachelor’s and graduate degrees, and 2-year colleges (i.e., community colleges), which primarily award associate’s degrees and educational certificates. In 2015, about 25% of recent high school graduates chose community college, while 44% enrolled immediately in a 4-year college (US Department of Education 2016).

College access differs by demographic group and is reflected by gaps in enrollment rates. In 2015, 69.5% of White, recent high school graduates enrolled in college in comparison to 62.6% and 67.1% for Black and Hispanic students, respectively. Meanwhile, Asian students had higher levels of college enrollment than other groups, at 86.7% in 2015. There are also major gaps by family income level. In 2015, 63% of students from low-income families (defined at the bottom 20% of the income distribution in the United States) enrolled in college immediately following high school graduation in comparison to 83% of students from high-income families (defined as the top 20%) (US Department of Education 2016).

Key Challenges to College Access and Choice

There are many barriers to college access, especially for low-income and minority students, but most can be grouped into three major categories: affordability, academic preparation, and information. The major first set of barriers to college access relates to cost and affordability. During the 2016–2017 school year, the average total list tuition and fees at public 4-year colleges and universities was $9650, with average total charges amounting to $20,090. Concerns about affordability are even greater at private 4-year colleges and universities, which charged an average list tuition price of $33,480, or $45,370 including room and board. Relative to family incomes, tuition prices have skyrocketed during the last several decades. From 2006–2007 to 2016–2017, in-state tuition and fees at public, 4-year colleges and universities increased an average of 3.5% per year beyond inflation; in comparison, median family income in the United States increased only 0.4% per year from 2005 to 2015 (College Board 2016a).

A second major set of barriers to college access and choice is academic preparation. Many students do not finish secondary school adequately prepared for higher education. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicate that in 2004, only 26.8% of high school seniors had completed “high-level” academic coursework, defined as 4 years of English, 3 years of mathematics (including at least 1 year of a course higher than Algebra II), 3 years of science, 3 years of social studies, and 2 years of a single non-English language (Chen et al. 2010). Furthermore, a lack of alignment between the K-12 and postsecondary education systems frequently results in confusing messages to students and their parents about how and what students should do to prepare for college (Venezia et al. 2003). There are also significant gaps in test scores by background (Jencks and Phillips 1998; Reeves and Halikias 2017 and Jencks et al. 1998). Therefore, while academic preparation is a problem for many students, it is a problem that especially affects low-income and minority students.

The third major impediment to college access for many students is the lack of information and the complexity of the college enrollment process, from decisions about preparation to the admissions and financial aid application process to college choice and matriculation. Information is a critical factor in models of higher education decision-making (Becker 1993), with the amount and accuracy of information a student has being important to supporting his or her calculation of the relative costs and benefits of going to college. Complexity and lack of information partly explain some of the challenges related to affordability and preparation described above. For instance, low awareness and information about financial aid is a barrier for some students to complete the necessary applications to obtain support to help them pay for college.

Attempts to Address Barriers and Lessons for the Future

To help families deal with the expense and encourage college enrollment, the federal and state governments spent $54 million on student grants in 2015–2016. The federal government also spent $96 million to provide student loans (College Board 2016b). States are also deeply involved in providing financial subsidies to students, which take the form of appropriations to public colleges and universities. These funds act as operational support for public institutions and enable them to lower the tuition price for in-state students. In 2015, state appropriations to public colleges and universities totaled $78 billion (SHEEO 2016). After taking into account the multiple sources of financial assistance, the price paid by students is much lower than the list prices in college catalogs (College Board 2016a).

The growth in college enrollment during the last several decades is at least partly explained by the growth in financial aid to students. Researchers have consistently found that grants have positive effects on college enrollment (Deming and Dynarski 2010; Dynarski and Scott-Clayton 2013). However, policy design is an important determinant of a program’s effectiveness, with easy-to-understand programs having the largest impact (Long 2010). However, even with grants, the remaining costs that families must meet are often substantial, which put into jeopardy the college access. As a consequence of unmet financial need, students are increasingly turning to loans to cover their postsecondary costs. Unfortunately, little is also known about how the availability of loans affects college access, because identifying the effect of loans is empirically challenging due selection issues. However, many papers highlight concerns, including the long-term negative repercussions of an excessive student debt burden.

To address issues of academic preparation, many colleges and universities have remedial or developments courses, which target students in need of material below “college level” with the purpose of improving students’ abilities to succeed in college. The bulk of remediation is provided by nonselective, public institutions, the point of entry for 80% of 4-year students and virtually all 2-year students (Bettinger and Long 2009). In many ways, remediation is what enables college access for significant numbers of students by allowing them to enroll in higher education even though they are not fully prepared for postsecondary course material. Unfortunately, traditional remediation programs have been found to have mixed, or even negative, effects on the outcomes of students (Bettinger and Long 2009; Calcagno and Long 2008; Martorell and McFarlin 2011; Boatman and Long forthcoming). More recently, there are efforts to reform remedial courses, sometimes using technology and additional supports, and early results suggest such reforms produce better results on average (Boatman 2012). To better meet the needs of underprepared students, some colleges have also implemented interventions such as summer bridge programs, learning communities, academic counseling, and tutoring in an effort to help students build better study skills (Bettinger et al. 2013; Sommo et al. 2012).

In acknowledgment of how lack of information limits college access, recent policy efforts have focused on simplifying forms and procedures for getting financial aid. Evidence suggests interventions that help streamline and provide assistance to students during the college enrollment process can have dramatic effects on access. For example, Bettinger et al. (2012) implemented a program that used tax information to pre-populate the financial aid form and then streamlined the completion of the rest of the form. They found that the intervention increased substantially college aid applications, improved the timeliness of application submission, increased the receipt of need-based grant aid, and ultimately increased the likelihood of college attendance and persistence. There is a growing body of research that suggests targeted help at key points in the college enrollment process could support better decisions about academic preparation and financial aid receipt (Castleman and Page 2016; Long and Bettinger 2017).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard Graduate School of EducationCambridgeUSA