College Access is Still a Problem

Low-income students have consistently attended college at lower rates than those from high-income families. But over the last 30 years, the percentage of low-income high school students pursuing a degree immediately after graduation has almost doubled. Though this figure may encourage some to dismiss college access as a challenge of yesteryear, new research demonstrates that we are still a long way from declaring “mission accomplished.” The continued problem of college access depends a great deal on how it’s defined.  

Research from Raj Chetty and his colleagues, Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility, confirms what many have already assumed to be true: While more low-income students are going to college, they are generally not attending the same institutions as their well-off peers. The majority are enrolling in community colleges and for-profit institutions, where they tend to have lower graduation rates and diminished economic returns. Meanwhile, wealthier students are far more likely to attend elite public and private four-year universities and continue to ascend the top rungs of the income ladder.

Access Rate (Student Enrollment from Bottom Income Quintile) Success Rate (Percentage of Students with Families in Bottom Quintile who Enter Top Quintile) Mobility Rate (Percentage of Entire Student Body with Families in Bottom Quintile who Enter Top Quintile)
Ivy Plus 3.7% 57.3% 2.1%
Other elite colleges (public and private) 3.8% 49.3% 1.9%
Highly-selective public 6.1% 44.9% 2.8%
Highly-selective private 4.2% 39.3% 1.6%
Selective public 10.9% 23.1% 2.3%
Selective private 7.8% 24.7% 1.7%
Nonselective 4-year public 15.6% 14.2% 2.1%
Nonselective 4-year private not-for-profit 11.7% 18.6% 1.9%
Two-year public 16.6% 10.9% 1.7%
Four-year for-profit 17.9% 11.2% 1.7%
Two-year for-profit 23.4% 9.9% 2.0%

College enrollment by institution type is highly segregated according to parental income. In particular, access rates for low-income students have an inverse relationship with selectivity and prestige. At the top of the food chain, Chetty et al. found that students with families in the top one percent of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League university than those students whose families have incomes in the bottom quintile. Similar disparities exist at elite public universities, where only about six percent of students come from a family in the bottom income quintile.  

This economic sorting of students based on parental income into different sectors of higher education comes with marked differences in earnings potential. For example, more than 13 percent of students from low-income families who attend an Ivy League enter the top one percent of the income distribution by the age of 32, and over half enter the top quintile. For their part, public flagships lift over a third of low-income students into the top 20 percent of earners. However, since elite private and public universities  enroll relatively few low-income students to begin with, the true engines of upward mobility -- those that balance a significant low-income student enrollment with reasonable rates of economic success -- are the less selective regional universities. In fact, eight of the top ten most upwardly mobile colleges for low-income students were regional public institutions. 

One of the most positive discoveries that the researchers made was that low-income students have similar outcomes to their wealthier peers after graduating from the same college. This finding runs counter to the notion that low-income students are “mismatched” when pursuing a degree from a rigorous institution instead of attending one where most of their peers come from a similar background. Helping more low-income students enroll in four-year universities, where they can get extra guidance and improve their chances of graduating, is equally important to expanding the support that students currently receive at open enrollment community colleges. 

With elite private colleges and many public flagships offering generous financial aid packages, it’s clear that low-income students’ choices do not always involve cost alone. In the end, some far more straightforward factors often hold these students back. For instance, proximity to home is one of the biggest predictors for where a student decides to attend. The need to stay nearby to family prevents some from taking advantage of options that could help them achieve greater success. As a result, regional public universities enroll a much higher share of low-income students than state’s flagship universities --  a difference of about 60 percent. But an even larger share of students whose families are in the bottom economic quintile attend open enrollment institutions, either public two-year community colleges or private for-profit schools. 

Far too many low-income students are struggling to make their way through a tangled web of challenges. But on average, earning a college degree is still the best way to improve one’s economic odds. Chetty’s research shows that about 16 percent of the lowest-income college-goers reach the top quintile of the distribution compared with only 4 percent of non-college-goers. While community colleges may not be lifting a large share of the low-income students they educate into the top echelons of wealth, they are steadily chipping away at income disparities more broadly. Community colleges propel over a quarter of their students from the bottom quintile into the middle one -- a rate that is on par with regional public universities.  

Open enrollment community colleges serve a vital role for students looking to retool or for those taking the first step in their college careers, and they deserve far greater public support. But policymakers also need to push elite public and private colleges to open their doors wider to academically-qualified low-income students. In our segregated system of higher education where outcomes differ tremendously, the meager number of low-income students at the nation’s top schools remains a very real problem. 

This is the second post in a series we are running about new, groundbreaking research that looks at how effective different colleges are in providing social mobility to their students. To see previous posts, click here.

Author:

Ben Barrett is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America, where he is a member of the higher education team.