Improving College Access in the United States: Barriers and Policy Responses

58 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2015 Last revised: 8 Jul 2021

See all articles by Lindsay C. Page

Lindsay C. Page

University of Pittsburgh School of Education

Judith Scott-Clayton

Columbia University

Date Written: December 2015


Socioeconomic gaps in college enrollment and attainment have widened over time, despite increasing returns to postsecondary education and significant policy efforts to improve access. We describe the barriers that students face during the transition to college and review the evidence on potential policy solutions. We focus primarily on research that examines causal relationships using experimental or quasi-experimental methods, though we draw upon descriptive evidence to provide context. Our review is distinctive in three respects. First, in addition to the literature on financial aid, we examine the evidence on informational and behavioral interventions, academic programs, and affirmative action policies intended to improve college access. Second, we incorporate a wealth of recent research not included in prior reviews. Finally, we conceptualize college access broadly, as including not just whether but also where students attend and whether they have access to college-level courses. We conclude with a discussion of implications for policy and research.

Suggested Citation

Page, Lindsay C. and Scott-Clayton, Judith, Improving College Access in the United States: Barriers and Policy Responses (December 2015). NBER Working Paper No. w21781, Available at SSRN:

Lindsay C. Page (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh School of Education ( email )

135 N Bellefield Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States
412-648-7166 (Phone)

Judith Scott-Clayton

Columbia University ( email )

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