New Report Documents Persistent Inequities and Worsening Attainment Trends in Higher Ed

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

Postsecondary enrollment trends have shown troubling signs since the onset of the pandemic, and a new report is highlighting stark inequities in the system that have the U.S. recording lower rates of educational attainment than other developed nations over a two-decade span.

The report is the result of a joint partnership between The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD), and contains a host of indicators meant to serve as a call to action for policymakers looking to equitably increase access to higher education.

Between 2000 and 2020, the report found a stark drop in the United States’ global standing for bachelor’s degree attainment among adults aged 25 to 34, falling from second to 16th among other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. That’s not to say, however, that fewer American adults are going to college — it’s just that adults in other countries are doing so in larger numbers. Over the last 20 years, the U.S. saw a 37% increase in bachelor's degree attainment while the countries that outranked the U.S. saw on average a 177% rate of increase.

The authors of the joint paper strive to reimagine access to higher education as a human right. First released in 2015, the report was meant to develop solutions and promote a dialogue to bolster equity in higher education by documenting trends in inequity, with a breakdown of how household income quintiles have stagnated.

Since then, the report has grown to include other indicators, such as differences by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES), state data, dependency status, and more.

Such inequities have led to a higher percentage of low-income students. In fact, the report found the percentage of K-12 students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and first-time full-time college students receiving federal grants has “almost doubled in the last few decades.”

Despite household incomes rising only for the highest income quartile over the last several decades, the cost burden still falls heavily on lower income families, the report found. For example, by 2016, the net price of attending college after accounting for financial aid, represented 94% of the average family income for those in the lowest income quartile.

Additionally, the report found that federal financial aid has not kept pace with rising college costs, and that if the maximum Pell Grant award had increased at the same pace as the overall cost of college, it would be $17,126.

Another concerning trend is the usage of student loans, which has increased in the last 30 years to make up for a lack of public funding, but varies greatly between racial and ethnic groups. Black students, the report found, had the highest percentage of students who needed to borrow, at 85%.

The report also incorporates personal student narratives to add perspective and humanize the data to reflect how investments in upbound programs illustrate the need for increased support of policies that create greater equity in higher education.

The more than 300-page report draws from multiple sources of existing data to provide, in one place, indicators that describe trends in equity in postsecondary enrollment, choice, and degree attainment, as well as indicators of college affordability.


Publication Date: 5/19/2022

Raymond G | 5/19/2022 2:47:50 PM

No one talks about the vast amenities that colleges now offer as compared to 30+ years ago. and why. Colleges attract students with nice things and students are willing to pay for it. In the end college is a business. Education alone is not the reason students pick their schools. There are plenty of low cost community colleges but students continue to enroll in higher cost universities and are more than willing to take out loans to pay for it. They do so of their own will. Many of these universities are like resorts. It does a great disservice to these impressionable kids. That is not the real world and they continue expecting such a lifestyle beyond college putting themselves in debt. And many of those same students will claim to be victims of predatory lending when it was totally within their control to make smart choices.

Darren C | 5/19/2022 2:27:08 PM

These long winded reports seem to have some great data in them but what is actually being done to change the system? Giving people more tax payer money is not a real solution. If we have certain groups of people struggling with school debt, let's discuss the "why" of that and actually propose real solutions and hold people accountable. Clearly the rising cost of education is the most disturbing trend, but yet we haven't seen anyone in the Government step in to address that, instead they've sat back as student loan debt has ballooned to 1.7 Trillion. Stop creating more victims and lets see some real change in policy and people held accountable for this crisis they taken part in creating.

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