These days, you’re more likely to encounter a student at or near poverty on one of the nation’s college campuses than you were two decades ago.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean access to higher education is equal.
The share of dependent college students — typically an undergraduate coming to college from their parents’ home — at or near the poverty level in 2016 was 39%, up from 29%, according to an analysis of government data released this week by the Pew Research Center.
Aside from an uptick during the Great Recession, the official poverty rate for adults was similar in 2016 and 1996, Pew added.
Despite the growing number of low-income students attending college, they’re still much less likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Despite the growing number of low-income students attending college, they’re still much less likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree — as opposed to an associate’s degree or certificate — than their wealthier peers, data released this week by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates.
Among students who were in 9th grade in 2009 and whose families were in the top fifth of the income distribution and attempted college, 78% pursued a bachelor’s degree. Among similar students in the bottom fifth of the income distribution just 32% did.
Getting a bachelor’s degree is the “real prize” in higher education, said Richard Fry, a senior researcher at Pew and one of the authors of the study.
Bachelor’s degree-holders earn $2.3 million over a lifetime on average, compared to $1.7 million for an associate’s degree holder, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce. Someone with a high-school diploma earns $1.3 million on average over a lifetime.
“On one hand, you can look at rising enrollment of low-income students or students of color in higher education as a whole as a good sign that we’re still making progress on college access,” said Mark Huelsman, associate director of research and policy at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
People with bachelor degrees earn $2.3 million over a lifetime on average versus $1.7 million for those with associate’s degrees.
On the other hand, “Your income or your family’s wealth is extremely predictive of whether you’re going to go college at all and certainly what program you’re going to do,” he added.
This adds fuel to concerns that the U.S. higher-education system is reproducing inequality instead of working to combat it.
This divide in where students attend college has implications for whether students get a degree and/or a decent return on the investment in their education. A college degree offers graduates an earning boosts, but attempting one is increasingly risky due to the rising costs.
Research indicates that students who attend less-selective colleges are less likely to graduate and be set up for success post-graduation because these schools have fewer resources to draw from.
Community colleges and for-profit colleges, which tend to be less selective, have seen much faster growth in the share of low-income students attending their schools. At community colleges, the share of students at or near poverty went from 32% in 1995 to 50% in 2016, Pew found. At for-profit colleges, the share of low-income students jumped from 43% in 1996 to 61% in 2016.
At private nonprofit colleges and four-year public colleges, the share of students at or near the poverty level increased just 3% and 6%, respectively, according to Pew. And the share of well-off students at private four-year nonprofits has actually grown during this time.
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