AAC&U News: May 2016
Facts & Figures

Higher Education Attainment by Family Income: Current Data Show Persistent Gaps

On April 19, 2016, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD) released Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States, a historical trend report focused on educational attainment by family income. The report examines historical trend data related to six primary indicators: postsecondary enrollment rates, type of institution attended, financial aid, means of funding one’s education, college attainment rates, and educational attainment in the United States compared to other nations. Included in the report are also data disaggregated by race and ethnicity as well as a series of essays reflecting on the findings and offering policy recommendations.

The report points toward continuing economic stratification in who attends college, where they enroll, how they fund their educations, and how likely they are to earn bachelor’s degrees. It also underscores the slipping international status of the United States in bachelor’s degree attainment. The inequities that the report highlights have considerable implications for both individuals and the nation: as contributing essayists Laura W. Perna and Roman Ruiz note, higher education yields “countless benefits for individuals,” and “our society also benefits” (76). The full report is available online.

Postsecondary Enrollment

  • Among 2014 high school graduates, 68 percent were enrolled in higher education as of October 2014. Among students whose families were in the top income quartile, 87 percent of graduates continued on to college, compared with 77 percent in the third quartile, 69 percent in the second quartile, and 60 percent in the bottom income quartile—representing a gap of 27 percentage points between the top and bottom quartiles.
  • Among a sample of students who were sophomores in high school in 2002, 84 percent—or 77 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students, 79 percent of Hispanic students, 82 percent of black students, 87 percent of white students, and 93 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander students—had entered postsecondary education within eight years of their expected high school graduation.
  • Data collected from 2004 high school graduates suggest deep socioeconomic stratification related to institutional selectivity. Among these students, sixty-nine percent who enrolled at the “most competitive” institutions were from families in the top socioeconomic quartile, compared with just 4 percent from families in the bottom quartile.

College Costs

  • In 2012–13, the maximum Pell Grant covered 27 percent of the average cost of college—40 percentage points less than in 1975–76, when the maximum Pell grant covered 67 percent of college costs.
  • The share of higher education funding that falls to individuals and their families (51 percent in 2014) and the share covered by the federal government (12 percent) have risen as the share of funding covered by state governments and local municipalities has dropped (from 58 percent in 1975 to 37 percent in 2014).
  • In 2011–12, students graduating with a bachelor’s degree had borrowed an average of $29,400 to fund their educations, compared with $16,500 (in 2012 dollars) in 1992–93. On average, Pell recipients borrowed 11 percent more than non-Pell recipients.

Attainment Rates

  • Among students in the bottom socioeconomic quartile, 15 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree within eight years of their expected high school graduation, compared with 22 percent in the second quartile, 37 percent in the third quartile, and 60 percent in the top quartile.
  • While white students are overrepresented as bachelor’s degree recipients relative to their representation in the general population, black and Hispanic students are underrepresented among bachelor’s degree recipients relative to their representation in the general population.

Did You Know?

  • In 2013, students who received federal grants were three times as likely to attend private for-profit institutions as their peers who did not receive federal grants.
  • Ranked second globally in attainment of bachelor’s degrees in 2000, the United States had fallen to a rank of 19 by 2014. 

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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