Report Reveals Global Disparities in Higher Education Access Based on Income, Gender, and Ethnicity

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The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a policy paper last week aimed at helping governments meet increasing worldwide demand for higher education. The report, titled Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind, details educational disparities based on income and gender in many parts of the world, as well as a need for all nations to ensure equal access to higher education for all citizens.

According to the report, the number of students enrolled in postsecondary education worldwide doubled between 2000 and 2014 to 207 million. While the increase includes figures for the world’s poorest countries — where an average of 8 percent of young adults enroll in college — these nations still lag far behind the world’s wealthiest countries, where an average of 74 percent of young adults enroll in higher education. The report also found that income greatly affects the length of time people spend in school; 20 percent of the world’s wealthiest students attended college for more than four years, compared to only 1 percent of the world’s poorest students.

In some nations, women and minority groups tend to fare far worse when it comes to obtaining a higher education. Ethnic groups that have historically faced oppression, such as the black population of South Africa and the indigenous populations of Mexico, have much lower college enrollment percentages than other populations. Additionally, in the world’s poorest countries, women comprise less than one-third of student populations.

Worldwide, public colleges and universities appear to be struggling to meet increasing demand, with private schools now enrolling 30 percent of students globally; in Latin America alone, 50 percent of students attend private colleges. Governments also appear to be struggling to keep up with increased costs, with families bearing a larger portion of higher education expenses in the wealthiest countries. In the U.S., students and their families pay for 46 percent of higher education expenses, while families in Japan and Chile pay the most — 52 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

The report emphasizes the need for increased funding for higher education worldwide if countries are to keep pace with increasing demand. Specifically, authors of the report say more needs to be done to ensure that college is accessible for low-income populations. They recommend that countries and schools create agencies and policies designed to ensure that student populations are diverse, and they urge countries to increase their efforts to help students and families cover the costs of obtaining a postsecondary degree.