Federal Laws Failing To Narrow Educational Gaps, Report Claims

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Washington--Two key federal education laws dating back to the Johnson era have failed to meet their purpose of expanding the educational opportunities of students from low-income families, a report issued by the American College Testing Program contends.

Despite billions of dollars having been pumped into the Chapter 1 compensatory-education and Title 4 student-financial-assistance programs over the last 25 years, it says, the gaps in educational attainment between the nation's wealthiest and poorest young people "are very large, pervasive, persistent, and growing."

"This, in my view, represents giant steps back from progress in trying to equalize educational opportunities," Thomas G. Mortenson, the act researcher who conducted the study, said in an interview.

Although the work builds on other studies of the federal programs, Mr. Mortenson said this was the first time a researcher had assessed the success of both federal laws in one study. He presented his findings here last week at a conference of the National Council of Education Opportunity Associations.

The author broke down Census Bureau income data into four equal family quartiles for each year from 1970 to 1989 to compare students' rates of high-school graduation, college participation, and college graduation.

"When all the evidence points in the same direction, you say, 'Shoot, it's up to me to put up a counterargument,' and I don't think [critics] can," Mr. Mortenson said.

But at least two other researchers last week questioned the validity of concluding that because graduation- and participation-rate gaps between the wealthiest and poorest students have remained relatively the same during the last 20 years, the two largest federal education programs are not working.

For his analysis, Mr. Mortenson looked at unmarried 18- to 24-year-olds by level of family income.

In 1989, the income figures were divided this way: less than $20,000 in annual income (the first quartile); incomes between $20,000 and $35,400 (the second quartile); between $35,400 and $58,100 (the third quartile); and more than $58,100 (the fourth quartile).

According to the study, the only advance made by students from families earning less than $20,000 has been a slight increase in high-school graduation rates between 1970 and 1989, from 61.6 percent to 65 percent. Mr. Mortenson calls that rise "modest demonstrable progress" for Chapter 1 and "a real gain for low-income people."

But rates of postsecondary participation and graduation for the poorest students declined during those years, the study found.

College-participation rates for the lowest-income group went from 45.8 percent in 1970 to 44.6 percent in 1989, with a peak of 46.9 percent in 1971 and a nadir of 39.6 percent in 1984. The gap in the participation rate between young people at the lowest income level and the highest level went from 33.2 percentage points in 1970 to 33.6 percentage points in 1989. The gap fluctuated between 22.7 and 35.9 percentage points during the two decades.

Moreover, the report notes, the lower the family income, the greater the chance that a student would complete only three years of postsecondary schooling or less, or earn a degree by attending college part time.

Using data from the Education Department's High School and Beyond study for 1980, the report says that 21 percent of the high-school graduates from the lowest income level for that year would earn a baccalaureate degree by the spring of 1986, while 46 percent of the graduates from the highest income level would earn the degree.

The graduation and participation patterns of low-income students were consistent when broken down by gender and race, it says.

Others Lose Some Ground

Meanwhile, students coming from families in the two middle income groups studied have lost ground in high-school graduation rates since 1970, according to the report.

The rates dropped slightly, from 84 percent in 1970 to 82 percent in 1989, for students in the second quartile, and from 89 percent to 88 percent for the third quartile. Over the same period, the rate stayed at 93 percent for the fourth quartile.

College-attendance rates increased from 56.2 percent in 1970 to 56.4 percent in 1989 for students from the second quartile; and from 64 percent to 67.5 percent for third-quartile students. But they dropped slightly, from 79 percent to 78.2 percent, for students from the top quartile.

For a student from the highest income level, the chance of earning a college degree ranged from 8 to 13 times better than that of a student from the lowest income level over the 20-year period.

"If the federal programs had been successful," the report argues, ''there would have been at least an increase in the level of participation of disadvantaged students."

"At best the increase in participation would have been at a higher ratio than the rest of the population," it says, "thus closing the gap between the disadvantaged students and the rest of the population."

The findings, Mr. Mortenson said, show that the Chapter 1 and financial-aid programs need to be revamped to close the college-participation gap. In particular, he said, the college-aid program has not translated into scenes of low-income students thrusting diploma-clutching fists into the air each spring.

"I don't want people to feel smug and comfortable," Mr. Mortenson said. "I want people to be aware that it's an unsatisfactory situation in relation to the goals of the program."

"The bottom line is at the end of the 1980's, a kid from the top quartile of the income-distribution scale has a 10 times better chance of earning a baccalaureate degree by the time he or she reaches 24 than a kid from the lowest quartile," he said.

"Moreover," he added, "while the kids from the upper-income quartiles have earned more baccalaureate degrees, the kids from the lower-income quartile that earned baccalaureates have actually gone down."

The act report notes that low-income students benefited from 1972 legislation that instituted the basic-aid grant, but suffered from a 1978 measure that expanded the program to wealthier students. It also cites the shift in emphasis in the 1980's from grants to loans, coupled with funding levels that failed to keep pace with inflation, as an explanation for disappointing college-going rates among poorer students.

Some of Mr. Mortenson's conclusions have drawn a skeptical reaction from two researchers who have studied issues related to college costs.

Arthur Hauptman, a higher-education consultant, and Mike McPherson, a Williams College professor of economics, acknowledged the accuracy of Mr. Mortenson's data regarding the educational-attainment gap between upper- and lower-income students. But they said the existence of the gap does not necessarily implicate federal programs and that several other factors could influence the college-going decisions of low-income students.

"The problem with these kinds of studies is drawing conclusions as they relate to policy," Mr. Hauptman said. "I didn't see anything in [the study] that's brought [conclusions] together better than anyone else has."

Mr. McPherson said he has completed a study for the Education Department that shows federal aid is helping expand educational opportunities for low-income students.

By calculating the net cost of college between 1974 and 1984--tuition costs minus the average student-aid subsidies--and relating that to income, Mr. McPherson said he found that the net cost has had little bearing on the postsecondary plans of middle- and upper-income students. But the net cost, which decreased during the 1970's and increased a decade later, does influence whether a low-income student attends college, he said, showing the importance of financial-aid programs.

Mr. Mortenson, meanwhile, said he hoped his study would be influential when the Congress takes up the reauthorization of higher-education programs next year. Among other changes, he advocates removing loans from financial-aid packages that go to first-year students and putting more emphasis on the college work-study program.

"Guys, we've got a serious problem out here," Mr. Mortenson said as if addressing the Congress. "And we have to think of other ways of addressing student aid and choice than we do right now."

Free single copies of "High School Graduation and College Participation of Young Adults by Family Income Backgrounds, 1970 to 1989" are available from the act, Educational and Social Research, P.O. Box 168, Iowa City, Iowa 52243.

Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 1, 12

Published in Print: September 26, 1990, as Federal Laws Failing To Narrow Educational Gaps, Report Claims
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