The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 24, 2014

The president's State of the Union address should tackle two higher education gaps

January 24, 2014

President Obama will likely use his State of the Union address Tuesday to draw attention to glaring disparities in access to higher education: students from some backgrounds are far likelier than others to go to college. They are also more likely to complete degrees—and they attend different types of institutions.

First, who is most likely to get some college education? Of 2002 high school sophomores, fully 91 percent enrolled in a postsecondary institution by 2012—that is, if we only look at sophomores whose 2002 family income was above $100,000.

The enrollment rate dropped to 78 percent for sophomores with family incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, 63 percent for family incomes between $20,000 and $50,000, and just 52 percent for students from families earning less than $20,000.

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There were also important differences among ethnic groups: Asian/Pacific Islanders had an 82 percent enrollment rate while the Hispanic rate was just 59 percent. Students whose parents had graduate degrees were far likelier to attend college than students whose parents had no more than a high school education.

While it’s important to investigate why those disparities persist and what strategies might close them, we should not let this problem obscure the critical set of gaps among students who do attend college.

Less than half of the low-income recent high school graduates who make it to college attend a four-year institution. Instead, they enroll in community colleges or for-profit institutions. About half of the low-income students who start college leave without completing a degree or certificate, compared to about a quarter of those from the highest income group. By 2012, when 61 percent of 2002 high school sophomores from families with incomes over $100,000 had bachelor’s degrees, only 15 percent of low-income students had completed four-year degrees.

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A small number of four-year institutions are very selective. They have a national reputation, ample resources, and accept only a fraction of their applicants. These colleges educate only a small fraction of America’s college students. Higher-income students are much more likely than similarly qualified lower-income student to attend these schools. This is important, because low-income students are more likely to graduate from college if they attend the most selective institutions for which they qualify. And these institutions, even if they have high sticker prices, frequently end up being most affordable because of their generous financial aid budgets.

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But focusing on elite institutions can distract us from the most serious issues. The vast majority of low-income students who go to four-year colleges enroll in less selective, more poorly resourced institutions.

What policies could President Obama call for?

The president’s effort to increase low-income students’ enrollment in elite institutions is thus admirable, but at best has the potential to help a very small number of students. Even if elite universities enroll twice as many low-income students in 10 years as they do now, these institutions will touch a tiny minority of the young people whose prospects are diminished by the social stratification of higher education.

What the president should focus on is pushing for greater resources for the institutions that educate most of the young people from low-income backgrounds and the older adults seeking to improve their labor market opportunities.

Too many low-income students don’t go to college at all. Too many of those who do enroll end up in institutions that don’t serve them well—either because the school’s goal is to increase profits, or because it doesn’t have the resources to provide the services and support their students need to succeed, or because we don’t know enough about how to help college students whose elementary and secondary education experiences have not been successful.

The president should recognize that the good will of institutions alone is not going to solve the daunting educational problems we face. We need better performance, backed by smart investments, all along the educational pipeline. We need personalized guidance for potential students. And we need stewardship of federal funding that protects students from the abuses too many now face in the postsecondary market.

 

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