Fifty-four percent of students born into high-income families around 1980 completed a college degree compared to 9 percent of those born into low-income families, concludes Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan. While low-income students improved their college graduation rate by four points compared to those born in the early 1960s, high-income students improved by 18 points, widening the gap.
Inequality in educational attainment has increased slightly for men and sharply for women since the early 1980s, researchers found.
Sex differences in educational attainment, which were small or nonexistent thirty years ago, are now substantial, with women outpacing men in every demographic group. The female advantage in educational attainment is largest in the top quartile of the income distribution.
“The gap between rich and poor in both college entry and college completion widened by almost twice as much for women as it did for men,” writes Peter Orszag in the Washington Monthly‘s College Guide.
It can’t simply be that wealthy families directly or indirectly buy advantages for their children. If this were the case, why wouldn’t it work as well for sons as for daughters?
For those born around 1980, 70 percent of high school graduates go on to college, compared to about half of graduates born around 1960. Low-income students are much less likely to complete high school, explaining about half of the college gap. Requiring students to stay in school until age 18 would make more low-income students eligible to attend college, Orszag writes. But it won’t help much if graduates aren’t prepared for college.
College persistence and completion is much lower for low-income students.
Less than 60 percent of students enrolled full-time at four-year colleges graduate within six years, the College Board has shown, and less than 30 percent of full-time students at two-year colleges graduate within three years.
. . . Among those born around 1980, only about a third of college students from low- income families got their degrees, compared with about two- thirds of those from affluent families.
Low-income students are much more likely to start at community colleges, which have very low graduation rates.