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College completion: a huge, widening gap between rich and poor

Divide U.S. youth into quartiles based on family income, and you quickly see the inequity in college degree attainment.  According to the Pell Institute’s report, Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the U.S. the college completion gap between rich and poor has doubled over the last 40 years.

  • The rate of bachelor’s degree attainment among young people from the lowest-income families was 6% in 1970 and 9% in 2014. (from the Pell Institute's 2016 study)
  • In comparison, the bachelor’s degree attainment rate for young people from the highest-income families was 40% in 1970 and 77% in 2014. (from the Pell Institute's 2016 study)

Among many barriers to finishing college, the need to work ranks high

The rising cost of college, combined with the decline in financial aid, (Federal programs like the Pell Grant covered 67% of college costs in 1975 and only 27% in 2012) and their families’ inability to contribute financially, means that today’s low-income college students must work longer hours while also attending school in order to pay for food, housing, books, computers, and transportation. Students indicate this is a leading cause of college drop-out.

Low-income students face additional challenges to college completion

Students from low-income families often face greater challenges to succeed once there. Beyond financial support, programs that provide assistance on campus, as well as engagement from professors, can help them succeed in college, complete their degree and leave poverty.

The U.S. needs college-educated youth for future national success

As the Pell Institute describes in its study, Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students, “Given the pressure to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy, it is in our shared national interest to act now to increase the number of students who not only enter college, but more importantly earn their degrees, particularly bachelor’s degrees. Due to the changing demographics of the United States, we must focus our efforts on improving postsecondary access and success among those populations who have previously been underrepresented in higher education, namely low-income and minority students, many of whom will be the first in their families to go to college.”

Many of our nation’s future college students will come from low-income families

As of 2014-15, 52% of all public school children were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch. This useful indicator of the relative number of poor children in the U.S. has been growing over the last 10 years, according to “Moving Beyond Access.”