College Completion: Gap Widens Between Rich and Poor Students

College Completion: Gap Widens Between Rich and Poor Students

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College students from lower income groups have more opportunities to pursue a degree than ever before. Federal pell grants, scholarships and financial aid can provide the assistance these students need to attend college. Yet, the college completion rate for such students is dismal, with just 9 percent of students from low-income families ($34,160 per year or less) obtaining bachelor degrees. That number is up from 6 percent in 1970.

High Education Attainment

The completion rate for college students from the wealthiest families has risen significantly across that same timeframe, surging from 44 to 77 percent, according to a report published by the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

The report’s release follows a call from President Barack H. Obama to make the first two years of college free for millions of students. However, the cost would be enormous — an estimated $60 billion over 10 years — and Congress is in no mood to expand spending.

Enrollment Up Across All Demographics

Among the other findings published in the report was that enrollment is up across all income groups. However, the completion gap remains a chasm, with 99 percent of students from wealthy families finishing college by the time they are 24 to just 21 percent of the poorest students.

The reasons for a wide gap in completion rates are many and varied. Chief among them include: access to the information and support needed to enter college and graduate; college preparedness; as well as the availability of higher education that meets people’s needs, especially for students who might have children, restricted access to transportation and full-time employment.

Further, the report noted low-income students are overrepresented at two-year schools (community and technical colleges) and are underrepresented elsewhere. Furthermore, higher income students are more likely to attend doctoral-granting institutions.

Grants and Financial Aid

Federal pell grants have helped millions of students afford college, but the maximum award has not kept pace with rising college costs. Specifically, college costs came in more than two times higher in 2012 than in 1975 when the Pell grant program was launched. In 1975, two-thirds of college costs were covered; in 2012 that coverage fell to nearly one-quarter of college costs.

Even with financial aid opportunities, many college students are simply finding it too difficult to purse a degree and balance that pursuit with other responsibilities including work and raising a family. Student loans can help, but these loans can take years to decades to pay off. Most students of limited means find that they just don’t have the resources to complete their education.

A Grim Future for Some?

In summation, this report shines a spotlight on a growing problem: a widening income gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans. With more positions and companies requiring college degrees, the plight of such Americans remains a difficult one to address. Most people who do not get a degree will find their options limited, with a life of flipping hamburgers, shoveling manure or cleaning offices before them.

See AlsoFree Tuition and Community Colleges

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