In a recent report on long-term trends in higher education equity, the non-profit Pell Institute came to a dispiriting conclusion: While more students are going to college, income-based gaps are worsening when it comes to higher education quality and degree attainment.
In its report, the Institute looked at six “equity indicators” over a 45-year timeline, including college attendance rates, completion rates, and the type of institution attended. Perhaps most discouraging, the report found that while bachelor’s degree attainment rates have increased dramatically for higher-income students, they’ve barely budged for poorer students. For students in the lowest income quartile, the bachelor’s attainment rate was just 9 percent in 2013 – compared to 77 percent for the most affluent.
This chart tells the story:
Source: Pell Institute
The Pell Institute’s report also found that the gap in college attendance rates between the top and bottom income quartiles shrank by just 6 percent since 1970. While 89 percent of students from the top income quartile went on to college in 2012, just 46 percent of students in the bottom quartile pursued higher education.
Moreover, between 2001 and 2012, the share of Pell grant recipients attending four-year colleges declined, while the share of non-Pell students attending four-year schools increased. The result was a 20-point gap in four-year college attendance between Pell and non-Pell students in 2012, up from a 14-point gap in 2001. Pell grant recipients were also almost twice as likely to attend for-profit colleges in 2012, compared to 2001.
Despite evidence that cutting public support for higher education widens the education gap between high- and low-income students, support levels continue to drop. As the Pell Institute documents, “[T]he percent of average college costs covered by the maximum Pell Grant declined by 40 percentage points – from a high of 67 percent in 1975 to a low of 27 percent in 2012.” And 29 states decreased their total funding of state colleges and universities, according to the New America Foundation, while 44 of 50 have decreased per-pupil support.
The Pell Institute report offers a variety of recommendations for closing these gaps, such as restoring the value of Pell grants and increasing state support for public colleges and universities.
But with Congress and more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers controlled by Republicans, the prospects for supplying the public resources needed to narrow the college-attainment gap seem dim, at least for the next several election cycles.
Nevertheless, to recognize that reality is not to counsel despair. Perhaps the opportunities to close the gap can be found not near the top of the educational pyramid but nearer to the bottom—closer to where education actually takes place. Perhaps the path to closing – or at least narrowing – the college attainment gap should start not when students start college, but when they start kindergarten.
The rich-poor gap is as real in K-12 as in college. In 2013, ACT reports, 45 percent of students from families with incomes under $36,000 were college-ready in reading, compared to 84 percent for families with incomes over $100,000, a gap of 39 percentage points. In math, the gap was 42 points, and in science 39 points. The racial gap is comparable: 28 percent of all white students tested college-ready in all four subject areas; African Americans: 4 percent.
As a result, while 19.9 percent of all entering freshmen must take remedial or developmental courses – courses for which they pay college tuition but receive no college credit – the figure is 31.9 percent for low-income students. 39.1 percent of African Americans and 20.6 percent for Hispanic Americans must take such courses, compared to just 13.6 percent of white students. Worse yet, fewer than four in ten students who take remedial courses graduate from college in six years; one in four don’t even complete the remedial courses.
It’s natural for progressives to look to Washington and Congress for policy reform. And with reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, a/k/a the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act both seemingly on glide-paths to Senate action, it’s tempting to dream of Congress recognizing that K-12 and post-secondary policy are inextricably linked and joining the two pieces of legislation together.
That won’t happen. And it’s almost certainly hopeless to look to the House for more resources for student aid.
But further down the national-local continuum, cities and states around the country have been awakened to the need to improve the education that low-income students receive before college. K-12 reform has been fermenting for more than a quarter-century and is still bubbling.
State by state and city by city, innovations such as charter schools, standardized testing, the Common Core curriculum and the rest of the education reform agenda are being implemented, refined, and will succeed—or they won’t, and will fall by the wayside to be replaced by something else. No such zeitgeist, no comparable energy, no potential for real improvement obtains in higher education policy.
So while the focus on students’ financial readiness for college is both laudable and important, let’s not forget that their academic readiness is equally crucial – particularly if the next 45 years are to see any narrowing of the gap in education equity.
Louis Barbash is a Washington writer who blogs at Connecting-the-Dots.net. He is a longtime consultant to educational institutions and organizations, including UNCF (the United Negro College Fund); the views expressed in this article are his own.