The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 24, 2015

Inequality in college completion: Why can’t we focus on real problems without exaggerating them?

February 24, 2015

How people start out shouldn’t determine where they end up as adults. The gap in college completion rates between students who grew up in low-income households and those who grew up in higher-income households has gotten a lot of attention lately. This is good news because reducing that gap is an important priority for a society that values equal opportunity.

Unfortunately, the conversation has been recently hijacked by wildly exaggerated data that obscure the realities of college outcomes. In a recent report, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education made this inaccurate assertion: “In 2013 the top quartile approached universal completion of a bachelor’s degree among those who entered college.” According to the report, 99 percent of students from the top income quartile who enter college now earn bachelor’s degrees. The Wall Street Journal and others have cited this dramatic assertion. It’s easy to see this inaccuracy becoming a frequently—and mindlessly—cited “fact.”

Anyone who looks at the percentages of people who do, think, or say almost anything would wonder about this 99 percent bachelor’s degree completion rate. Can we really believe that on a typical block in an affluent suburb, no kid who starts college fails to earn a bachelor’s degree? Don’t young reporters from upper-middle-class backgrounds know friends from college who dropped out or suffered a delay? Some students opt for shorter-term degrees; some become ill and leave college; some don’t meet the academic standards; some decide that that a job is more appealing than school. The report does not provide any explanation for its numbers, and more reliable data are easily available.

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For example, the Department of Education’s longitudinal survey of students who first enrolled in college in 2003-04 tells a very different story. The survey indicates that among the highest-income quartile, 59 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree six years later and 68 percent had earned some sort of postsecondary credential. It we look only at those who first enrolled in a four-year college—as opposed to a community college—and if we limit the sample to the top 6 percent (whose families have incomes of $150,000 or above), we get to a bachelor’s degree completion rate of 80 percent.

A bachelor’s degree completion rate of 59 percent for the top quartile might not sound very impressive. But comparing it with the 25 percent rate for those from the lowest quartile (and to 36 percent and 45 percent for the middle quartiles) gives us plenty to worry about. We should do much more to improve educational outcomes for low- and moderate-income students. But we should also be more careful about reporting, repeating, and focusing on data that have shock value but misrepresent reality.

Photo by michaeljung/Shutterstock

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