15 Key Insights for NCAN Members From the 'Indicators of Higher Education Equity' Report

June 3, 2019

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

Last week the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (Penn AHEAD) released the Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States 2019 Historical Trend Report. The collection of metrics, an annual publication, is an invaluable resource for those interested in postsecondary education. The volume is packed with facts and figures and grows every year, it seems.

This report is arguably most often referenced for the discouraging results it shows around degree completion by family income (see Equity Indicators 5a-c for those results). But there are a lot of other insights to be gleaned about the state of postsecondary equity, and this post eschews those most often cited to instead present 15 other items from the report that should be on NCAN members’ radars.

Note that the Equity Indicators at the end of each item are linked to an Excel chart containing the referenced data.

  1. The cohort college participation rate by family income continues to be depressing… Welcome to the weeds of education metrics, folks. The cohort college participation rate is the percentage of students enrolled in two- and four-year institutions over the total number of 18-24 year-old students. In 2017, there was a 37 percentage-point disparity between dependent students from the highest and lowest income quartiles. Since 1970, however, this metric for students in the lowest income quartile has grown from 28% to 48%, by far the largest increase of any of the four quartiles (Equity Indicator 1a).

  2. …but the high school graduates college continuation rate is more encouraging. The high school graduates college continuation rate is “the percent of 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates who were enrolled in a postsecondary education institution of any type.” Examining this metric by family income quartile, we see that the rate for students from the lowest income quartile has climbed from 46% in 1970 to 63% in 2017, nearly matching the rate of students from the second income quartile. Among high school graduates, postsecondary participation for low-income students is making some headway (Equity Indicator 1b).

  3. Median wealth figures are an eye-popping visual of economic disparity in the U.S. From 1983 to 2016, median wealth for White families rose from $110,160 to $146,984. This means that if you ordered the wealth of each White family in the U.S. from least to greatest the family exactly in the middle of that list would have wealth equal to $146,984 in 2016. Compare that to the median Black ($3,557) or Latino ($6,591) family’s wealth and it’s clear why 1) Postsecondary education is important for these populations and 2) Affordability continues to be a major concern when families have very little wealth to draw on to finance their postsecondary education. Black families’ wealth actually declined in real terms from 1983 to 2016 while Latino families’ rose by about 50% (STS Figure 8b(ii)).

  4. Parental education level’s effect on high school graduation is greatly diminished, but its effect on postsecondary enrollment remains strong. These data are a little dated, but among 10th grade students in 2010, 92% of students with neither parent attending college, 97%, with at least one parent attending some college, and 98% with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree completed high school in 2012. This is encouraging and shows the progress made toward high school graduation for all students. It’s a different story with postsecondary enrollment though. Just 72% of students whose parents never attended college enrolled in postsecondary education within eight years of high school graduation. Compare that to 84% of students with at least one parent with some college and 93% of students with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (Equity Indicator 1h).

  5. Separating the first-generation effect from the low-income effect. Equity Indicator 5c(ii) considers the completion rates of dependent first-year students enrolled in a postsecondary institution for the first time in 2003-04. This chart breaks completion rates out by low-income and first-generation status. Low-income, not first-generation students who started at four-year institutions had a 56% six-year completion rate, compared to 41% of low-income, first-generation students. It’s a rough estimate, but this suggests that the effect of being a first-generation student, holding constant income, is about a 15 percentage-point decrease in completion, at least for students who start at four-year institutions. The same effect doesn’t exist for students who started at two-year institutions; among these students, low-income, not first-generation students had a 13% six-year completion rate compared to 11% for low-income, first-generation students. Even more interesting, first-generation students who were not low-income had lower completion rates than low-income, not first-generation students; this was true both overall and for students who started at four-year institutions. All of this offers evidence that being a first-generation brings its own set of challenges, which would support most NCAN members’ feelings on the matter (Equity Indicator 5c(ii)).

  6. Here’s a brief interlude to chuckle at a silly question from the report: “Does financial aid eliminate the financial barriers to paying college costs?” No, but it should. Moving on.

  7. Pell's purchasing power has plummeted. This is common knowledge for NCAN members, but worth reiterating that the Pell Grant’s purchasing power is in an annual decline. As a percentage of average college costs, the Pell Grant’s purchasing power peaked in 1975-76 when it covered 67% of tuition, fees, and room and board). In 2017-18 it covers just 25% of those costs (Equity Indicator 3b(ii)). In order to get back to that level of purchasing power, the Pell Grant would have to have a maximum of $15,969 today; as a reminder, the current maximum Pell Grant is $5,920 (Equity Indicator 3b(iii)).

  8. Unmet need for students in the lowest family income quartile is 250% of what it was in 1990. In 1990, the unmet financial need of a dependent full-time undergraduate was $3,665. By 2016 it was $9,143. Students in the second income quartile have been hit even harder; their unmet need climbed from $385 in 1990 to $7,665 in 2016 (Equity Indicator 3c).

  9. State divestment in higher education is putting the burden on students. Part of the reason for all of this unmet need is state divestment in higher education. Around 1980, personal expenditures were about 33% of higher education funding nationally, and state and local expenditures were close to 60%. By 2017, state and local expenditures fell to 42% of higher education funding responsibilities, and personal expenditures climbed to 48% (Equity Indicator 4a(i)). To put state divestment another way, state fiscal support per $1,000 of personal income were $10.37 around the mid-1970s; in fiscal year 2017 they were nearly half that at $5.42 (Equity Indicator 4a(ii)). State need-based grant recipients were 30% of total Pell Grant recipients in 2016, compared to 72% around 1980; similarly, total state need-based aid spending was about 30% of Pell Grant spending in 2016 compared to about 52% in the late 1970s (Equity Indicators 4a(v)). By multiple measures, state investment in higher education relative to personal and federal expenditures have decreased.

  10. Net price as a percentage of the average low-income family’s annual income is unconscionable. Although net price increased as a percentage of all families’ incomes from 1990 to 2016, for families in the lowest income quartile the rise has been meteoric. In 1990, average net price of postsecondary education was 45% of the average low-income family’s annual income. This is obscenely high, but it is nothing compared to the 94% of annual income that it was in 2016. For comparison, average net price is 37%, 24%, and 14%, respectively, of the second, third, and fourth income quartiles’ annual income (Equity Indicator 4b(ii)).

  11. Although the number of private nonprofit and public degree-granting Title IV institutions has held steady for the past 20 years, the number of private for-profit institutions continues its decline since about 2012. From about 1996 to 2012, the number of for-profit institutions rose meteorically in the United States, but in the past six to seven years, the decline has been precipitous. Enrollment at these institutions has also declined over the same period (STS Figures 2 and 3).

  12. The past five years have seen a dramatic flip-flop in the distribution of students at two- and four-year public institutions. From about 1980 to about 2010, community colleges enrolled a higher proportion of students than four-year public institutions, but within the past five years, that trend flipped and the two institution types’ shares of enrollments are diverging. In 2016, public four-year institutions enrolled 43.3% of students and community colleges enrolled 34.6%. (STS Figure 4).

  13. 58% of K-12 students are now approved for free or reduced price lunch, and 42% of first-time, full-time degree-seeking undergrads receive a Pell Grant or other federal grant. These numbers underscore the need for education policy to keep the needs of low-income students front and center. The Pell and other grants figure is actually down from circa 2010-12, when enrollment spiked post-Recession as students likely enrolled in college aiming to make themselves more attractive in the job market. (STS Figure 6a).

  14. There isn’t enough discussion about Hispanic students’ postsecondary successes. There has been a lot of doom and gloom here, and rightly so, but I want to conclude with two silver linings. First is that the postsecondary success of Hispanic students over the last 30 years has been remarkable. In 1980, Hispanic students comprised 8% of the 18-24 year-old population and represented 2% of bachelor’s degrees and 4% of associate degrees conferred that year. By 2017, Hispanic students comprised 22% of the 18-24 year-old population (2.5 times what it was in 1980). However, in 2017 these students received 14% of the bachelor’s degrees and 21% of the associate degrees conferred. These percentages represent 7 and 5.25 times the 1980 proportion. Long story short: Hispanic postsecondary attainment is outpacing their population share, and that’s very good news (Equity Indicator 5d(i)).

  15. Once students complete a bachelor’s degree, there appears to be some parity in pursuing more education. Considering the percentage of dependent students who received a bachelor’s degree in 2008 and then went on for further schooling, there’s some encouraging news. Examining this by income quartile, we see that students in the first, second, and third income quartiles went on to any post-baccalaureate program at rates of 46%, 44%, and 46%, respectively. Breaking those figures out by master’s and doctoral degree programs, there is similar parity. Attaining a bachelor’s degree is not assured for enrollers. NCAN members know that all too well. But the data are suggestive that once a student obtains a bachelor’s subsequent postsecondary pathways are about as accessible for low-income students as they are for the middle class (Equity Indicator 5e(i)).


(Photo by Yingchou Han on Unsplash)


Tweet: Dynamic Duo Helps Detroit Students Get Degrees: https://ctt.ac/rz405+ via @collegeaccess


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