A longitudinal trend analysis of student equity in completion, jointly conducted by the Pell Institute and PennAHEAD (The University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy), documented that the percentage of students from low-income families who enroll in higher education and persist until graduation has increased only modestly from 1970 to 2013 – from six to nine percent. In contrast, the percentage of students from high-income families who enroll and persist until graduation has jumped from 40 percent in 1965 to 77 percent during this period. These findings indicate the sobering reality that – 40 years later and despite persistent national effort – postsecondary attainment is no more equitable regardless of a student’s income background now than it was four decades ago.
The report, entitled Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States, dug into other factors that inform the conversation about the extent to which, if at all, progress has been made to close higher education’s achievement gap between students from different family income backgrounds. Looking at trend data, for example, the authors provided a broad contextual overview of how enrollment trends by institutional sector (public, private non-profit, private for-profit) and level (two- and four-year) have changed over the past four decades, setting the stage for a deeper dive by students’ family income backgrounds in relation to enrollment and completion patterns.
The findings raise concern as to whether policy actions thus far have been bold enough to close the equity gap in completion.
Students with low-income family backgrounds are 27 percentage points behind those with high-income family backgrounds to enroll in college upon graduation from high school (62% versus 89% as of 2012). This gap has remained relatively consistent throughout the past four decades, and, although more low-income students are enrolling in college after graduation from a secondary school, the low percentage of completers mentioned above raises important questions about whether these students have the appropriate level of financial, academic, personal, and social support to persist from enrollment to graduation.
And since tuition is only a portion of the total amount a student must consider when making the decision about where – and whether – to attend a college or university, it is also critical to examine the purchasing power of the Pell Grant over time. In 1974, for instance, the maximum Pell Grant award covered approximately 53 percent ($4,690) of the total cost to attend ($8,858) an institution per year – the total amount including, but in addition to tuition. Four decades ago, the maximum Pell award would have also covered a reasonable amount of non-tuition related expenses at many institutions. Presently, however, the maximum Pell Grant covers just above a quarter (27 percent, or $5,550 as of 2012) of the total cost of attendance ($20,234) per year. For students in the bottom income quartiles, this poses a substantially heavier burden to enrollment and completion when compared to high-income students due to the inflexibility associated with lower take-home pay and the resultant lack of discretionary income (see an earlier blog post for a deeper look at this issue). Of course, federal need-based aid is only part of the picture. In 2010, for example, AASCU reports that strictly need-based aid consisted of 47% of all state-subsidized financial aid across the United States.
But again, the perplexing findings of the Pell Institute and PennAHEAD study leave policymakers and the higher education community to ponder the true investment and support needed to clear blockades within the access pipeline and enable more students to move from enrollment to graduation.
Just what will it take to provide equitable higher education to America’s low-income students? For a student to attend a college or university, what is the unmet financial need beyond all aid and the student’s expected family contribution? With staggering pay and limited economic prospects for many who struggle in low- to middle-income employment, is it reasonable to expect families to front the remaining cost to attend an institution? And what if an institution that is cheaper in terms of tuition is out of reach geographically, thereby driving up the student’s cost of attendance should he or she have otherwise been able to reside with a parent, guardian, or other loved one while attending an institution nearby? If our nation is going to advance equity in success in any real way, we should consider these questions and others like them and target policy interventions at the institutional, state, and national levels that suitably cater to the needs of low-income students.
Narrowing the equity gap is not just about the personal benefits associated with attaining postsecondary education for more low-income Americans. If our nation is concerned about short and long-term economic vitality, a critical point of attention will be to mind the equity gap in college completion. A recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce documented that – for the past 30 years - the United States has been under-producing a sufficient number of college-educated workers to keep pace with growth in occupations that require at least some postsecondary instruction. The report found, for instance, that, from 2010 to 2020, the proportion of occupations that require at least a minimum level of college attainment will increase from 59% to 65% percent of all occupations, respectively - signaling the elevating importance of postsecondary instruction in our ever increasing knowledge-based economy. The report also illustrated that from 2010 to 2025, there will be 20 million more jobs than there will be appropriately credentialed graduates to fill them provided our current attainment holds constant. These unfilled openings represent 20 million opportunities for more Americans to build a better quality of life for themselves and their families, and the only way to ensure that citizens are adequately prepared for economic success now and into the future is through education.
And to build on the notion that college attainment is just as societal as they are individual, research has shown that – when compared to those without a postsecondary credential - college attainment is associated with increased tax revenue, lower unemployment rates, better health outcomes, and a greater likelihood of postsecondary attainment among children in households where at least one parent attended college. All of these indicators are good for individuals on the micro-level and provide rich benefits to all of us on a societal level, pointing out that by investing in others, we are investing in ourselves.
As higher education leaders, we should recognize that identifying and overcoming success challenges are responsibilities on which we act as critical agents. We should also recognize, however, that the bold action required to elevate success among low-income Americans is a shared responsibility with a broad stakeholder community. As such, we should be engaging educational leaders and educators at all levels as well as policymakers, community members, parents, and students themselves to identify a meaningful set of action items to narrow the equity gap. At the national level, the outcome of policy thus far has made clear that bolder action is needed to move the needle on completion for low-income students, and there is no better time than the present to make strides toward elevating postsecondary success for all Americans.