College & Workforce Readiness

Income-Based Gaps in College Attainment Have Worsened Since 1970, Report Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — April 21, 2016 2 min read
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Students from all socioeconomic groups have been earning bachelor’s degrees at increasing rates in recent years, but gaps in college attainment by socioeconomic status have worsened slightly since 1970, according to a report released this week.

A study of college attainment patterns, released by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, shows that 72 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned in 1970 went to students whose families are in the top half of the income spectrum. In 2014, that figure rose to 77 percent. Students whose families are in the bottom half of the income strata earned 23 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in 2014, compared with 28 percent in 1970.

One reason for the schism in degree attainment, according to the report, is the types of institutions students attend. Students from the bottom two income quartiles more often enroll in colleges with lower graduation rates than do those from wealthier families, the report says.

Making the picture even tougher: College costs that have been rising far more quickly than the Pell and other federal grants that offset their costs for low-income students. And the poverty rate: Between 1989 and 2014, the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches grew from 31 percent to 53 percent, the report says.

“Despite the great number and diversity of postsecondary educational institutions in the U.S., the 2016 Indicators Report shows that, on average, students from lower-income families are enrolling in institutions with different characteristics than students from higher-income families,” Laura W. Perna, the executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, and Roman Ruiz, a doctoral student there, write in an essay accompanying the data.

Students from lower socioeconomic strata are overrepresented in public two-year colleges, in private, for-profit colleges, and in less-selective institutions, Perna and Ruiz write, and those differences are fueled in large part by students’ unequal access to the financial resources and academic preparation that are necessary to make different choices.

That stratification in access leads to stratification in outcomes, since the more-selective colleges and universities tend to have higher graduation rates.

Changing those patterns will require major shifts in policy. Perna and Ruiz reiterate arguments familiar to those who have pushed for more equity in the college-access realm: bolstering the Pell Grant program, beefing up academic preparation and access to college-level coursework at needy schools; and a better counseling system to ensure students can make savvy choices about college, including how to pay for it.

Even as college completion patterns show persistent and wide gaps by socioeconomic status, the gaps at an earlier point in time—as students move from high school into college—are narrowing. In 1970, there was a 33 percentage point gap between the highest and lowest income quartiles of high school graduates enrolling in college. By 2014, that gap had shrunk to 27 points.

The racial and ethnic distribution of high school graduates going on to college shows big improvements since the mid 1970s in all groups, too. By 2014, black students were moving from high school into college at rates that exceeded white, non-Hispanic students.

But the college completion data presented in the Pell report shows that even as the doors to college open for more high school students, the pathway through college, to the degrees that enhance future prospects, is still a bumpy one.

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