April 26, 2016

Report from Penn AHEAD illuminates college degree wealth gap

Although more U.S. students from all races, ethnicities, and economic levels have enrolled in colleges and universities after high school in the past 40 years, family income has a significant impact on entrance to college, student loan debt, and degree completion, according to a report issued by the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at Penn GSE. The persistent inequality is associated in part, the report shows, with limited postsecondary options for students from families in the country’s lowest income group. Due to resource constraints and structural failures, these students’ college choices are often limited to less selective nonprofit or for-profit institutions.

The Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2016 Historical Trend Report  examines trends in postsecondary enrollment in the United States by family income, race/ethnicity, and family socioeconomic status. It uses data from the Current Population Survey, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Beginning Postsecondary Study, the NCES high school longitudinal studies, and other public sources.

The report shows that while bachelor’s degree attainment rates have increased for all family income quartiles, the distribution of bachelor’s degree attainment among family income levels has remained relatively constant since 1970. The top two family income quartiles together accounted for 72 percent of the total bachelor’s degrees attained in 1970, compared with 77 percent in 2014.

As reported in The Atlantic

“Differences in enrollment patterns by family income reflect the stratification of the financial, academic, and other resources that are required to enroll in different colleges and universities,” Laura Perna and Roman Ruiz of the University of Pennsylvania and a colleague wrote in an essay accompanying the report. “Students from higher-income families have the resources that enable meaningful choice from among the array of available options nationwide. But, resource constraints and structural failures often limit the ‘choices’ of students from lower-income families to the local or online, non-selective or for-profit postsecondary educational institution.”