College & Workforce Readiness

Income and Gender Gap in College Attainment Widens

By Caralee J. Adams — December 06, 2011 2 min read
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Your odds of going to college and finishing are much greater if you are a woman and from a family with money. While not particularly a news flash to many, a study by University of Michigan researchers traces these trends back more than 70 years and documents growing gaps in attainment by income and gender.

Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequity in U.S. College Entry and Completion, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski was just released. From a big-picture perspective, college entry has increased nearly 50 percent for Americans born between 1921 and 1988. College completion by age 25 has more than quadrupled for those born between 1915 and 1983.

Looking more closely at the data, the researchers found widening gaps in college entry, persistence, and graduation between young people from high- and low-income families. For children born in the early 1960s compared with those in the 1980s, rates of college completion rose by 18 percentage points for cohorts from high-income families and just 4 percent for those from low-income backgrounds.

As for gender, women outplace men in education in every demographic group and, especially, in the top quartile of income distribution. The top and bottom quartiles in college entry increased by 15 percent among women, but by 7 percent among men. At the highest income levels, women have a 13 percent advantage over their male counterparts.

Why the inequality? Income is a bit easier to understand. High tuition and school quality are barriers for poor families. But this would affect girls and boys the same, as they are equally distributed in lower-income school districts, leaving researchers to wonder about the gender gap.

The paper suggests one explanation may be differential interactions of boys and girls in K-12 classrooms or with a female parent or different labor- and marriage-market returns to college for men and women. “But these explanations focus on the modern era, and our time series suggest that recent changes in college entry and completion are part of a long-term historical pattern—they are not a new phenomenon,” the authors note. “Women have been more likely than men to complete high school since at least the 1940s.”

What is clear:
1. Inequality in high school graduation explains half of income inequity in college entry. What this means for those trying to improve college access: Intervene earlier. Scholarships, college-outreach campaigns, and mentoring can only help students on track to go. “Those who have already dropped out of high school, in body or spirit, cannot benefit from these interventions,” the authors say.

2. Gaps in college persistence explain the inequity in college completion. More needs to be done to address the financial, academic, and social factors that keep students from staying in school, particularly for males.

3. Inequality in educational attainment has risen more sharply among women than
among men, driven by rapid increases among women from upper-income families, who
have pulled away from other women, and all men, in their educational attainment.

The research is based on 70 years of data from the U.S. Census and the 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.