Despite Increased Participation, Large Postsecondary Inequities Persist

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Although students from all races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds are attending college at higher rates than in the past, there are still noticeable inequities, with wealthier students significantly more likely than low-income students to complete a bachelor’s degree on time, according to a new report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and PennAHEAD, the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania.

The third annual report – Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2017 Historical Trend Report – found that students from the highest income families are five times more likely than students from the poorest families to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, and that increases in U.S. college completion overall have slowed compared with other developed countries over the last nearly two decades. The institute also released an Equity Indicators website, which provides searchable data from this year’s report and from previous years.

Although college completion by age 24 for dependent students from the lowest-income families doubled between 2000 and 2015, from 6 percent to 12 percent, the wealthiest students in the U.S. were still significantly more likely to complete college by age 24, at 58 percent. Between 2000 and 2015 the percentage of the U.S. population between the ages of 25 and 34 who had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 30 percent to 36 percent. But in the same time, the country’s international standing declined from second of 30 countries to 18th by 2015.

“Average college costs, relative to the U.S. average family income, and the increasing development of a stratified, two-tiered higher education system in the United States are two major factors that are depressing the rates of attainment, especially for low-income

and first-generation students,” said Margaret Cahalan, a report co-author and director of the Pell Institute, in a statement. “On average, children of more affluent and college-educated parents tend to attend more resourced and selective 4-year institutions, while lower-income, first- generation students are overrepresented at often less resourced 2-year institutions and for-profit institutions. This calls for more study.”

The average cost of attendance, not accounting for financial aid, appears to place an unequal burden relative to income for students from the poorest families. In 2012, the average cost of attendance was 238 percent of family income for dependent students with family incomes less than $10,000, but 18 percent of family income for students with family incomes of $200,000.

But financial aid overall was also found to be insufficient for many low-income students, who also on average have more student loan debt than wealthier students, according to the report. The students form the lowest income background had more than $8,000 in unmet financial need on average, compared with about $3,500 in 1990 (in constant dollars). Pell Grant recipients on average graduated with $31,000 in debt, compared with $27,400 for non-recipient borrowers.

The report found that the value of the federal Pell Grant has continued to decline, covering 67 percent of average college costs about 40 years ago (in 1975-76), but just 26 percent in 2015-16. If the Pell Grant were to have the same value today, the maximum award would need to be increased from $5,775 to $15,029.

“For reasons of social justice and international competitiveness, closing the persisting gaps in college attainment must be a national priority,” said Laura Perna – a report co-author, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and director of PennAHEAD – in a statement. “Public policymakers and institutional leaders must do more to ensure that all students, regardless of family income, social class, and race/ethnicity, have the opportunity to attain a college degree.”


Publication Date: 4/26/2017

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