Expert Commentary

Gains and gaps: Changing inequality in U.S. college entry and completion

2011 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research on college enrollment and completion trends by income and gender.

The higher education landscape in the United States has shifted significantly in recent years, and in 2011 the percentage of U.S. adults over age 25 with a bachelor’s degree exceeded 30% for the first time, according to the Census Bureau. As tuition has risen, so have student debt loads. Further, more students are choosing to attend part-time or discontinuously, and the for-profit sector continues to grow.

A 2011 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion,” examines the link between family income, gender and educational attainment since 1980. The researchers tracked college entry, graduation rates and persistence (the completion rate divided by the entry rate) for two groups. The first was comprised of individuals born between 1961 and 1964 who graduated from high school between 1979 and 1982 (“Cohort ’79”); the second was born 18 years later (“Cohort ’97”). The researchers also documented overall college completion rates between 1940 and 2007.

The datasets were divided into four groups — known as quartiles — sorted by income from the lowest to the highest. This allowed the researchers to get insight into how financial resources affected individuals’ ability to attend university.

Key study findings include:

  • College entry rates increased for all four income quartiles between Cohort ’79 and Cohort ’97. “These increases reflect long-term improvements in college preparedness and increased access to postsecondary institutions.”
  • While all groups’ entry rates increased, the rate of change varied significantly: High-income groups witnessed a 22 percentage point increase while the lowest-income quartile gained only 10 percentage points. The difference in college attendance between the top-income and bottom-income quartiles increased from 39 percentage points for Cohort ’79 to 51 percentage points for Cohort ’97.
  • Women in the top-income quartile pulled away from the rest of study population in all measures — college entry, persistence and completion.  “In [Cohort ’97], an astounding 85% of women in the top quartile entered college.”
  • For all women in Cohort ’97, the share of those enrolled in college is ten percentage points higher than the share of men who are, 71% versus 61%.
  • Unequal high-school graduation rates explain approximately 20 percentage points of the 39 percentage point gap in college entry between the top and bottom income quartiles observed for Cohort ’79. The high-school graduation rates explained 25.9 percentage points of the 51 percentage points gap in college entry for Cohort ’97.
  • Gaps in persistence rates between top-income quartile and bottom-income quartile rose from 25 percentage points for Cohort ’79 to 36 percentage points for Cohort ’97. “Persistence rates among men [in Cohort ‘97] dropped by about 10 percentage points in the bottom two income quartiles while rising by more than 10 percentage points among women in those same quartiles.”
  • Over the past 70 years, college entry rates have increased by 50 percentage points, an average gain of 7.6 percentage points for each decade.

“Coming up with effective policy responses should be a major research focus given that it is clear that inducing more low-income youth into college will not, by itself, serve to close income gaps in educational attainment,” the researchers conclude. “It is troubling that persistence rates among men dropped by about 10 percentage points in the bottom two income quartiles while rising by more than 10 percentage points among women in those same quartiles. Even if rates of college entry were miraculously equalized across income groups, existing differences in persistence would still produce large gaps in college completion.”

Tags: gender, inequality, poverty

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