10 Key Stats from Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the U.S.

August 16, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

The latest edition of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education's annual Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States is filled to the brim with facts, figures, and charts organized around six key questions:

  1. Who enrolls in postsecondary education?
  2. What type of postsecondary educational institution do students attend?
  3. Does financial aid eliminate the financial barriers to paying college costs?
  4. How do students in the United States pay for college?
  5. How do educational attainment rates and early income outcomes vary by family characteristics?
  6. How does educational attainment in the U.S. compare with other countries?

The report draws its data largely from federal data sets and surveys, and the authors note that “data from sample surveys such as the Current Population Survey (CPS) and NCES longitudinal studies are subject to sampling error and changes in definitions and study designs.” Readers should weigh large year-to-year swings less heavily than longer-term trends, many of which span decades.

Digesting a report this large can be time-consuming and confusing. That said, I have picked out 10 key findings of which NCAN members should be aware. I have noted where these appear in the report. Data and evaluation managers (and appreciators in general) can add this recent volume to their repertoire.

  1. From 1970 to 2015, the percentage of high school students from families in the lowest income quartile who continued on to some kind of postsecondary education increased from 28 percent to 46 percent. Enrollment in the second and third quartiles both grew 11 percentage points over the same period (from 47 to 58 percent and 57 to 68 percent, respectively). The top quartile’s continuation rate increased four percentage points (74 to 78 percent). Despite the substantial growth in college continuation for students from the poorest families, it's worth noting that less than half of these students are matriculating, according to the Current Population Survey. (Indicator 1a) 

  2. Considering just high school graduates, students from the lowest family income quartile saw their college matriculation rate grow from 46 percent to 61 percent between 1970 and 2015, the largest increase across the four income quartiles. (Indicator 1b)

  3. Breaking data out by race, White, Black, and Hispanic students all saw substantial increases in postsecondary continuation from 1970 to 2015. Black and Hispanic students saw the largest gains (17 and 18 percentage points, respectively), but their 2015 continuation rates still lag that of White students by 9 and 11 percentage points, respectively. (Indicator 1c)

  4. Just 15 percent of high school graduates from the lowest income quintile enrolled in moderately or highly competitive institutions in four-year institutions in the fall following high school graduation. Students from the fourth and fifth quintiles were far more likely to enroll in these institutions (at 37 and 63 percent, respectively). (Indicator 2f)

  5. The Pell Grant, while an important tool for college access, has never had less purchasing power than it does now. In the 1974-75 academic year, the maximum Pell Grant covered 53 percent of average college cost (sticker price, across sectors, including tuition, room and board, and fees). By 2015-16, the maximum Pell Grant covered just 26 percent of average college cost. (Indicator 3b(i))

  6. In the 1975-76 academic year, the maximum Pell Grant covered 67 percent of the average college cost. If that same purchasing power were to be maintained in the 2015-16 academic year, the maximum Pell Grant would had to have been $15,029, a 260 percent increase over that year's actual maximum of $5,775. (Indicator 3b(iii))

  7. In the mid-1970s, state and local expenditures comprised 58 percent of higher education funding, compared to the 33 percent of funding that comes from personal expenditures. By 2015, those figures had inverted. Personal expenditures now comprise 51 percent of higher education funding, while states and localities cover 37 percent. In the short term, federal government expenditures accounted for 16 percent of spending in 2010 but fell to 11 percent by 2015. (Indicator 4a)

  8. Between 1990 and 2015, the average net price of attendance as a percentage of family income nearly doubled for families in the lowest income quartile (rising from 45 percent to 84 percent). This level of burden for the lowest-income families represents a significant hurdle for students, forcing them to take out loans or work while enrolled. (Indicator 4b(ii))

  9. According to the Educational Longitudinal Study, just 15 percent of 10thgraders from families in the lowest income quartile in 2002 had attained a bachelor’s degree within eight years of expected high school graduation. (Indicator 5b)

  10. According to the Beginning Postsecondary Students (2004:09) study, just 21 percent of low-income, first-generation students who enrolled in 2003-04 earned a bachelor’s degree by 2008-09. Note that these are the most recent data available from an NCES longitudinal study, but the National Student Clearinghouse has more recent low-income student completion figures. (Indicator 5c(ii))

If you have questions, comments, or concerns, or if I omitted your favorite fact or figure, please let me know at debaunb@collegeaccess.org!

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