Higher Education Barriers for Low-Income, First-Generation Students Vary by State, Reflect Ongoing Inequities

May 17, 2018

Low-income, first-generation American students face major barriers, financial and otherwise, in attending colleges and universities, and those obstacles can vary significantly by state, according to the Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States — 2018 Historical Trend Report. The annual report, published by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education (Pell Institute) of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD), also found that while more low-income college students are enrolling, the nation has not yet achieved equal access to higher education for all citizens regardless of family background or geographic location. These continuing disparities have significant negative consequences on the ability of all citizens to earn a living wage, on our nation's global competitiveness and contribute to income inequality in the United States.

Among key findings:

  • The cost of college is nearly equal to the poorest students’ family income. For students in the lowest quartile of family income, the cost of attending college amounts to 84 percent of family income. Indicator 4b (ii).
  • Pell Grant coverage has declined substantially relative to costs. In constant dollars in 1980, the maximum Federal Pell Grant covered 68 percent of average college costs compared with 25 percent in 2016-17. Indicator 3b (i to iii).
  • Low-income students’ college enrollment has increased since 1970, but large gaps in college attendance by family income persist. In 2016, an estimated 78 percent of 18 to 24 year olds from the highest family income quartile enrolled in postsecondary education compared with 46 percent of those in the lowest quartile. Indicator 1a.
  • College participation among low-income students differ by state. The college participation rate for low-income students ranged from 10 percent in Alaska and 21 percent in Oklahoma and Wyoming, to 50 percent in New Hampshire, 53 percent in New York, and 56 percent in New Jersey. Indicator 1f.
  • Average college costs vary substantially by state Average costs in public 2-year colleges range from $1,262 in California to $7,002 in New Hampshire. Public 4-year college costs range from $13,709 in Utah to $26,968 in New Hampshire. Private 4-year costs range from $13,010 in Idaho to $57,363 in Massachusetts. Indicator 3a (i to iv).
  • Bachelor’s degree attainment varies by state. Massachusetts, at 51 percent, leads the states in percentage of 25 to 34 year-old population with a bachelor’s or higher degree, while Nevada’s 22 percent is the lowest. The U.S. now has almost as much variation among the individual states as among countries in bachelor’s degree attainment of the same age group. Indicators 5f (v) and 6a.
  • College debt has become the norm. By 2012, 70 percent of U.S. graduating college seniors had incurred debt, up from 50 percent of graduating seniors in 1990. Indicator 4e (ii).
  • The vast majority of black students borrow. Over 90 percent of graduating black seniors had borrowed compared with 66 percent of white graduating seniors. Indicator 4c (i).
  • In degree attainment among countries, the U.S. ranking has dropped. In international comparisons, the U.S. ranked 18th in bachelor’s degree attainment in 2016, down from 2nd in 2000. Indicator 6a.

"While there appears to be some progress, there are many reasons for concern," said Laura Perna, report co-author and director of PennAHEAD. "For example, more black students are attending college, but they are going into more debt to do so. More low-income students are attending college than in years past, but low-income students continue to be concentrated in less selective and for-profit institutions and have lower degree completion rates. Since higher education is a steppingstone to the middle class, we should be worried that national and state higher education policies are foreclosing opportunities for the next generation."

Margaret Cahalan, report co-author and director of The Pell Institute said, "Recent reports have highlighted that while higher education provides opportunity for mobility, it has also led to greater stratification and a justifier of growing wage and wealth disparity. We have long seen how family income is an important factor in whether or not students enter and complete college, but the growing differences among states reflect that we are increasingly moving into a geographically divided country. The strong relationship of parent education as a primary correlate to college attainment serves to magnify the differences over generations. Delving into the disparity among states, we're seeing trends that show profound implications of where students live in the United States in the likelihood that they will enter and complete college in the U.S."

Since 2015, the Indicator Reports have examined trends in higher education in the U.S. through the lens of equity, compiling historical trend data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education and other public sources. The 2018 report, for the first time, includes data by state, and also includes statistics on income inequality trends.

The Pell Institute conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to encourage policymakers, educators, and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation college students and students with disabilities. It is the research arm of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit organization established in 1981 that is dedicated to furthering the expansion of college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students, and students with disabilities.

PennAHEAD is dedicated to fostering open, equitable, and democratic societies through higher education. Located within the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania, PennAHEAD conducts original research and applies a multidisciplinary, research-based approach to address the most pressing issues regarding the societal contributions of higher education in the United States and the world.

For an embargoed copy of the full report, contact Kimberly Jones at COE via e-mail at (kimberly.jones@coenet.org).

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