Equity & Diversity

Low-Income Students: More Going to College, But Few Earning Degrees

By Catherine Gewertz — May 17, 2018 2 min read
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A troubling good news/bad news pattern has developed among our low-income students: They’re going to college in greater numbers than ever, but only a small fraction are leaving with degrees.

A report released Thursday offers the latest opportunity to see the pattern in multicolored charts and graphs. They paint a portrait of two generations of low-income students who have raised their college sights only to stumble before securing the payoffs of a degree. Educators and activists worry that the pattern could limit their potential earnings and social mobility.

“When I look at these statistics, I think maybe we are profoundly and unequally fostering disincentives to higher education participation, especially among low-income students,” Margaret Cahalan, the director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said during a call with reporters last week.

The data in the report by the Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, known as PennAHEAD, aren’t new. Other researchers, including the University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski, have pointed out that the bachelor’s degree completion rates for low-income students lag far behind their college-enrollment rates. A demographic study, highlighted by the New York Times, showed that for poor students, four-year-degree completion for children born in the 1970s and 1980s barely budged, while it soared for children from the most affluent families.

Like other studies, the Pell report illustrates the many ways that money serves as a key barrier to college completion for low-income students. It details the rising cost of college, and the shift of a larger chunk of college costs onto families.

And unsurprisingly, family-income level is still a powerful predictor of college-going. The chart below includes three different federal databases. In each study, far larger shares of students from the lowest family-income quartile go to college than those from the highest-income quartiles.

The bars in the chart below represent bachelor’s degree completion. Take a look at the green bars. They show patterns for a group of students in one large federal study that followed students for a decade, starting when they were in 10th grade in 2002. You can see that students from the highest family-income quartile were four times likelier to earn four-year degrees than those from the lowest-income quartile.

For each of the three big federal studies shown below, the gap in bachelor’s-degree attainment between students from the highest and lowest-income families was 45 percentage points or more.

Tackling the college-completion problem for needy students must involve both the K-12 and higher education sectors, and recognize the “structural inequalities” of the U.S. education system, PennAHEAD Director Laura Perna said during the call with reporters. She was referring to many dynamics that shape the process, such as a lack of access to rigorous courses and strong counseling support in high schools with large shares of low-income students, and insufficient financial support for students once they reach college.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.