Report: More Undergraduates Are From Low-Income Families - But Mostly at Less Selective Colleges

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

In the last two decades the growth in the college-going population has been driven by an influx of students from low-income families. But the increase in the number of low-income college students has been most pronounced in public two-year colleges, private for-profit colleges, and the least selective four-year institutions. What’s more, there remains a significant gap in college enrollment between the lowest- and highest-income students, according to two new reports out this week.

In a report published Wednesday, the Pew Research Center analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and found that while the percentage of undergraduates who are in poverty has increased throughout all sectors of higher education in the last 20 years, the largest increases occurred at less selective four-year institutions, private for-profit institutions, and at public two-year institutions.

In 1996, for example, 12% of students overall lived in poverty, compared with 20% in 2016. The share of undergraduates living in poverty increased from 14% to 25% at less selective four-year institutions, from 13% to 27% at public two-year institutions, and from 23% to 36% at private for-profit institutions.

This increase, the report said, “does not mirror wider trends in society.” In the broader population, the poverty rate for adults between age 18 and 64 (12%) has remained similar in 1996 and in 2016, which suggests that “access to college for students from lower-income backgrounds has increased since 1996.”

Still, the share of students in poverty varied between dependent and independent students. While the percentage of dependent students living in poverty increased from 12% to 20%, the share of independent students in poverty increased from 29% to 42%. Meanwhile, the growing portion of dependent undergraduate students at more selective institutions come from higher-income families, the report said.

Meanwhile, in its annual Conditions of Education data report also released Wednesday, NCES showed that among students who started ninth grade in 2009, there was a 50 percentage point gap between the highest- and lowest-income students who were enrolled in college in 2016, three years after they would have completed high school.

Among those students in the highest income quintile, 78% were enrolled in postsecondary education, compared with 28% of those from the lowest income quintile. Thirty-two percent of those in the lowest income quintile were “standard enrollees”—meaning they first enrolled in college within one year of high school completion and were either still enrolled or completed a credential as of February 2016. By comparison, 79% of those in the highest income quintile were standard enrollees. Forty-four percent of those from the lowest income quintile never enrolled, compared with 7% of those from the highest income quintile.

The NCES report also covers the characteristics of students enrolled in postsecondary education over time, the cost of attending a postsecondary institution, data on student loan borrowing, sources of financial aid, and other factors.


Publication Date: 5/23/2019

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