College completion gap growing between rich and poor students


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Photo by Yingjie Hu |

Students from the lowest-income families earning a bachelor’s degree jumped three percent since 2013, in comparison to the 33 percent increase in bachelor degree attainment for students from the richest families during the same period of time, according to a report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY YINGJIE HU / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER


The workforce is losing talent due to the exclusionary education system in the United States, said Margaret Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

The Pell Institute was one of two organizations that recently published a report examining the difficulties students from low-income families have in attaining a college degree, compared to students from families that earn higher incomes.

The gap in bachelor’s degree attainment between the nation's wealthiest and poorest students by age 24 has doubled during the past four decades, according to the report.

The percent of students from the lowest-income families earning a bachelor's degree since 1970, has inched up just three points, rising from six to nine percent by 2013.

In the same time period, college completion for students from the richest families jumped from 44 to 77 percent.

“It is essential that we educate all U.S. citizens, not just those whose families have high incomes,” Cahalan said.

Data in the report came from statistics gathered by the government in the Census Bureau and National Center for Educational Statistics, Cahalan said. Pell Institute, along with an organization called Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, pulled comparable data over time.

Cahalan said there are multiple causes for the growing completion gap.

Income inequality in the United States means that low-income families do not have the resources to afford college educations for their children, Cahalan said. If the children do attend college, they more frequently enroll in 2-year programs.

Another major factor is the decline in public funding of higher education, passing costs to families, she said.

Ira Gang, a professor in the Department of Economics, said he agrees that cutbacks in state funding lead to higher costs of state universities.

“That explains the relative increase in state tuition versus private,” he said in an email. “That is then connected to the access of richer and poorer students, even to the state universities.”

Cahalan said students whose parents have not completed college might need additional academic support to compete with students whose parents have had more education.

“The education of parents is the greatest predictor of average SAT and ACT scores,” she said. “The way our schools are organized, students who need the most support are given the least support.”

One of the greatest causes for the widening gap is that many low-income students who do enter college must work too many hours while they are going to school, Cahalan said. This leads to poorer performance and graduation rates.

The Obama administration recently stepped in on the issue by expanding the availability of Pell grants and proposing two years of free community college.

Pell grants are part of a federal program that encourages access to higher education by providing need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students. The grants help more than 8 million students per year, according to the White House website.

But Pell grants cover fewer low-income students compared to when the program was first established, and have lost purchasing power, Cahalan said.

According to the report, Pell grants only covered about 27 percent of the average costs of college. This number is down from about 67 percent in 1975.

“There is a need to increase aid and also to experiment with converting loans to grants upon completion of a program of study,” she said. “There is a need to increase the coverage of the Pell grants relative to costs.”

Effective federal programs include Upward Bound and Talent Search, Cahalan said. These programs help bridge the gap, but only reach about 10 percent of eligible students.

Robert Kruger, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said he believes more low-income students should have access to higher education, but that there is a downfall to increased access to education.

“I think that if everyone can get a college degree, it might be worth less to actually graduate,” he said. “What sets you apart from everyone else when you’re looking for a job in the future?”

But Cahalan said it is important for young Americans to pursue higher education so they can develop their talents and make a contribution to solving the serious issues we face today.

The solutions are complex and will require combined efforts at the federal, state and local levels, she said.

“We need to develop a higher education system that values inclusivity rather than selectivity, and is focused on project based learning,” she said.

Avalon Zoppo is a Rutgers Business School first-year student majoring in pre-business. She is an Acting Associate News Editor of The Daily Targum. Follow @AvalonZoppo for more stories.


Avalon Zoppo

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