Income Gap in College Participation Persists

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WASHINGTON--Since the late 1970's, low-income students have not made up any ground on their higher-income peers in the rate at which they attend college, a new study concludes.

The study, "Parental Income and College Opportunity,'' was released here last month by the Democratic Study Center, which commissioned the report.

"These data provide us with a very disturbing picture of how American society has changed in recent years,'' said Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., and the president of the center. "During a period in which a college education has become a passkey for earning a middle-class standard of living, the opportunity to get that passkey has become increasingly unequal.''

"I think this is a real blow to having the kind of society we Americans pride ourselves on--a society in which who you are is determined by merit and hard work instead of what neighborhood you grew up in or what kind of job your old man had,'' Mr. Wise added.

The study, conducted by Charles F. Manski, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, found that college-going and degree-attainment rates continue to be closely correlated to the income of a student's family.

In the late 1980's, according to the study, 44 percent of youths from families in the lowest one-fifth of income range, 62 percent of youths from families in the middle quintile, and 79 percent of youths from families in the highest quintile were enrolled in college.

The study drew on data from the Current Population Survey between 1970 and 1988, the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, and the High School and Beyond survey.

Four-Year Colleges

The study found that the distribution of enrollments at two-year institutions was relatively similar across all income groups. In the late 1980's, 16 percent of youths from families in the lowest quintile, 20 percent of youths from families in the middle quintile, and 17 percent of youths from families in the highest quintile were enrolled in two-year colleges.

Greater disparities were found in enrollments at four-year colleges and private colleges.

In the late 1980's, 20 percent of the youths in the lowest-income quintile, 29 percent of those in the middle quintile, and 40 percent of those in the highest quintile were enrolled in four-year public colleges.

For private colleges, the respective percentages were 7 percent, 12 percent, and 20 percent.

The breakdown by income of students enrolled in private high schools nearly matched that of students enrolled in private four-year colleges in the late 1980's, the study found.

According to the study, the chance that a high school senior from the highest quintile was enrolled in a private school was about 3 times greater than that of a youth from the lowest quintile.

Enrollment Distribution Stable

Moreover, the enrollment distribution has changed relatively little over time, the study concludes.

In the period from 1975 to 1979, the percentage of youths enrolled in two- or four-year public colleges whose family incomes were in the bottom quintile was 35 percent, the study said. That percentage dropped to 30 percent for the years 1981 to 1984 and then rose to 36 percent for the period 1985 to 1988, it said.

Meanwhile, the percentage of youths from families in the middle-income quintile was 41 percent for 1975-79, 42 percent for 1981-84, and 49 percent for 1985-88.

For families in the highest quintile, the percentage was 49 percent for 1975-79, 54 percent for 1981-84, and 57 percent for 1985-88.

For private colleges, the percentage of youths enrolled increased moderately from the late 1970's to the late 1980's for all groups--from 7 percent to 9 percent for the lowest quintile, from 10 percent to 14 percent for the middle quintile, and from 21 percent to 22 percent for the highest quintile, the study said.

The report concluded that income affects the attainment of a bachelor's degree even more than it does college enrollment.

By 1986, the study said, 12 percent of the students who graduated from high school in 1980 from families with incomes in the lowest quintile received a degree, compared with 24 percent from the middle quintile, and 39 percent from the highest quintile.

Vol. 12, Issue 01, Page 17

Published in Print: September 9, 1992, as Income Gap in College Participation Persists, Democratic Study Concludes
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