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The college graduation achievement gap has widened over the past 40 years, a new study found. (Photo: Texas A&M University/flickr/cc)

College Completion Gap Between Rich and Poor Has Doubled: Study

'It's really quite amazing how big the differences have become between those from the highest and lowest family incomes,' said Laura Perna, director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy

Nadia Prupis

The college completion gap between rich and poor students has doubled over the past four decades, according to a new report published Tuesday.

Only 9 percent of students from the lowest-income families currently earn bachelor's degrees by age 24, in contrast to the 77 percent of students from the wealthiest families. While the number of wealthy students obtaining bachelor's degrees has nearly doubled since 1970, when it stood at 44 percent, it has inched only three percentage points for low-income students—up from 6 percent—in forty years, according to the report, Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States (pdf).

Moreover, the study found that the enrollment gap between rich and poor students has narrowed across the board—indicating that more low-income students are entering college, but far fewer are able to finish.

College costs, meanwhile, have skyrocketed. A 2012 report by Bloomberg found that tuition and fees have increased 1,120 percent since 1978. "For millions of young people, rising college costs are putting the American dream on hold, or out of reach," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told Bloomberg at the time. And federal aid like the Pell grant, which covered 67 percent of college costs in 1975, only covered 27 percent in 2012.

"We sometimes think that low-income students are taken care of because of the federal program. But you can see it covers so much less than when it was first established," Margaret Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, which co-published the report, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

As Anne Johnson, director of youth-focused think tank Generation Progress, points out:

Student debt has a greater impact on low-income borrowers than other Americans. In fact, borrowers in the least affluent one-fifth of American households faced education debt that averaged 24 percent of their income in 2010. The average for all households was 6 percent. ...

When starting out, students from low- and middle-income households already face a higher burden. They are less likely to have family assistance and more likely to have other pressures, such as a part-time job or family caretaking role in addition to classes. And many low-income students avoid applying to college altogether, citing the cost. This has resulted in a shrinking economic diversity at schools.

According to the report, the share of costs covered by state and local governments has steadily declined, and an increasing number of students from all income family groups are forced to borrow larger and larger amounts to compensate for those expenses.

"It's really quite amazing how big the differences have become between those from the highest and lowest family incomes," Laura Perna, a University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, which co-published the report, told the AP on Tuesday.

In January, President Barack Obama introduced a proposal that would make two years of community college free to students who maintained a certain grade point average, a proposal which is projected to benefit nine million people in all 50 states. But as AP notes, the price tag to such a plan—$60 billion over 10 years—is unlikely to be welcomed by a Republican-controlled Congress. Critics of the plan also argued that aiding students in entering community colleges will not actually help close the completion gap.

According to the report, a number of factors contribute to the growing divide in scholastic achievement, such as inequity in affordability; inadequate academic preparedness through high school; and a lack of access to the information and support necessary to enter and complete college.

Michael Kramer, a 29-year-old student at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the AP that the prohibitively high costs of tuition and fees kept him from entering college directly after graduating high school.

"We're a country that says everybody should be getting higher education, and nowadays, to get any decent job, you need a bachelor's degree," Kramer said.

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