Report highlights ongoing inequities in college access

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

Dive Insight:

Bachelor’s degree attainment in the U.S. continues to grow. Still, the researchers point to “persisting inequality” that sees high shares of students of color and low-income and nontraditional students attending lower-spending or less-competitive institutions.

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The report’s authors — the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy — show how these trends play out in several ways.

The share of Pell Grant recipients attending schools in the two quintiles that spend the least on education grew by several percentage points in the last two decades, while those in higher-spending brackets shrank.

Based on data from the latest cohort, nearly half of American Indian/Alaska Native high school graduates and more than 30% of their Black and Hispanic peers were classified as “not enrolled” or “missing” from colleges the fall after their high school graduation.

Students from those groups that year were the least likely to be enrolled at the most highly or moderately competitive four-year schools.

Nontraditional students, meanwhile, were far less likely to finish a credential in six years than their peers. The researchers flagged factors such as being enrolled part-time and working more than 35 hours per week as characteristics that increased this risk. Nontraditional students were also more likely to receive Pell grants and have higher levels of unmet financial need. (The report uses the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of independent students to classify this group.)

The pandemic threatens to further exacerbate these disparities. Of students ages 16 to 24, unemployment rose for Black, Asian and Hispanic students at more than double the rate for White students. The pandemic’s health impact was also more severe on these groups and Indigenous populations.

Colleges have taken steps to attract students during the pandemic, including free classes and increased financial aid. But undergraduate enrollment, particularly at public two-year colleges, continued to lag year-ago levels into the spring. The crisis has presented many challenges that could be holding people back from enrolling, including new childcare responsibilities and a lack of access to on-campus resources because of coronavirus-related closures.

These decreases also show the pandemic’s disproportionate impact. The latest data shows that community colleges and those the report classifies as noncompetitive or less competitive enroll larger shares of low-income students than do more selective schools.

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