The nation’s colleges continue to graduate far fewer students who grew up in poor households. With the country’s economic potential possibly hanging in the balance, a new report urges the United States to dedicate more resources and know-how to closing the college-completion gap between wealthier students and those from low-income backgrounds.
The issue boils down to the number of college-educated workers that will be needed to fill the bulk of the country’s new jobs—two-thirds of which will require some college background by 2020—and the dearth of college degrees held by lower-income workers. With well-paying jobs in manufacturing and the trades largely a relic of the nation’s industrial past, the middle-class pathways for workers with just a high-school education are few and far between. The basic arithmetic underscoring America’s labor needs points to a possible future in which the poor are unable to take full part in the nation’s economy, creating great social and economic strain.
Among the report’s findings: When American households are organized into four income groups, 24-year-olds from the top two groups accounted for 77 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014. In 1970, that figure was 72 percent, suggesting that growing up in a wealthier household matters even more now in completing a degree than it did four decades ago. Graduates who hailed from households with incomes of at least $116,000—the top quarter—represented more than half of all the degrees awarded in 2014 among 24-year-olds. Students from households that earned less than $35,000—the lowest quarter—represented just 10 percent of all the degrees awarded. The report, which relied on U.S. Census and other data sources, was released by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania, Council for Opportunity in Education, and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.