And Americans are getting their diplomas in record numbers. In 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 32% of Americans over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree — an all-time high. But a new study shows that for kids who are growing up poor, a bachelor’s degree is getting further out of reach.
Conducted by two higher-education research institutes and released this week, the study showsthat the college-education gap between rich and poor has multiplied dramatically over the past four decades to perhaps the widest it’s been in national history.
The rate of affluent people completing college has exploded, while the rate of low-income people getting diplomas stayed relatively flat, according to the study. In 1970, 40% of affluent students finished college by 24, compared with about 6% of low-income students. In 2013, according to the study, more than three-quarters of upper-income students had finished college by age 24, but less than 10% of poor students did by the same age.
Released at a time when wealth inequality and college affordability are both on the national agenda, the study delivers sobering news for people living in poverty, who are at risk of being left behind in the global economy, where most well-paying jobs require some kind of post-secondary education.
Margaret Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said the research on who finishes college and who doesn’t revealed a striking pattern: Children of parents who graduated from college were far more likely to get their diplomas. That’s despite surveys showing affluent and poor kids understand college is important to life success.
“All students have high expectations,” said Cahalan. “But for students who are low-income, as the report indicates, there are barriers. The financial reality is not there.”
And, if you’re poor, “you’re more likely to be sorted into a track to go to a community college, or not to college at all,” Cahalan said. That’s in line with a recent study showing students at two-year schools are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree and are more likely to drop out.
While Obama’s new free community college plan could help, there’s another factor: Poor students tend to go to middle and high schools that lack the resources or the academic rigor to prepare them for the prerequisites to college, including doing well in achievement tests like the SAT. If the parents haven’t achieved, Cahalan said, their children are less likely to make it to college.
“We have a situation where test scores and academic preparation are highly correlated with parent achievement,” Cahalan said. If your parent finished college, “you’re more likely to score higher, and you’re more likely to be academically prepared,” she added.
The report also pointed to a lack of resources to help poor students enter and finish college, including budget cuts to federal student aid. At the same time, according to the report, colleges don’t have sufficient academic support classes for students who might not be fully prepared to matriculate.
“Selective schools and flagship schools tend to have more students whose parents are more likely to be highly educated,” Cahalan said.
It’s a complex, nationwide problem, and “there isn’t any magic bullet,” she said, though there are countries road-testing solutions. Cahalan pointed to Australia, where students take college-board exams that are scored with an income-adjusted handicap, and Norway, where the government forgives student-loan debt for anyone who graduates.
In the U.S., both the federal government and colleges should expand access to financial aid, emphasize academic preparation, and give support to students who need it, Cahalan said.
“There’s a lot of things, and I think it takes a multi-faceted approach,” she said. “Colleges should be more inclusive to select certain students that might be special admits. They should be able to educate people who are more challenged and underprepared.”
After all, Cahalan added, “it’s not hard to educate a student whose parents have PhDs.”