The Graduation Gap Is Even Larger Than the Enrollment Gap for Low-Income Students

By Annie Wood
This first appeared on

It’s probably not terribly surprising to most that low-income and high-income students are not enrolling in colleges at the same rates. However, new research indicates an even more striking divide: there’s an even bigger gap in graduation rates between socioeconomic groups than the gap in enrollment.

In 2002, researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) embarked on a longitudinal study and began tracking a cohort of 15,000 students who were then sophomores in high school. NCES followed these students’ trajectories, carefully collecting data on their academic achievement in high school, college selection, work history, and finally college graduation.

The researchers divided the cohort of students into quartiles based on family income, education, and occupation to track how their backgrounds impacted their actual opportunities and achievement. The top quartile had the highest-income and highest-educated parents, while the lowest quartile had the lowest-income, lowest-educated parents.

From the beginning of the study, around 70 percent of all of the sophomores reported they planned to go to college. Across socioeconomic backgrounds, students had high expectations and aspirations. Researchers did find that students who fell in the affluent top quartile reported college aspirations at a higher rate: 87 percent expected to get at least a bachelor’s degree, and 24 percent expected to get an advanced degree. Still, in the bottom quartile, 58 percent reported plans to get at least a bachelor’s degree, and 12 percent planned to go to grad school, despite likely coming from households where their parents did not have any college degree.

Fast-forward thirteen years later: In the lowest quartile, only 14 percent of students had ended  up obtaining a bachelor’s degree, or about one in four. In the highest quartile, 60 percent had made it through and earned a diploma.

Some people say as long as lower-income students are bright and high-achieving, they can do just as well as more affluent students. NCES researchers’ findings are contrary to that rosy American Dream narrative. A teenager from a low-income family with high scores and a teenager from a wealthy family with okay test scores are equally likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree, according to NCES’ longitudinal research. In both of these groups, 41 percent achieved a bachelor’s by their late twenties.

Research out of Stanford shows that low-income students are falling behind their affluent peers in testing, which means high-scoring, low-income students are already beating the odds. These test scores are important for even getting into college; the gap in graduation rates shows that there are larger issues at play. Though the participants in the study are now well into their twenties, the patterns that emerged from the long-term study are clear and should inform education advocates and policymakers’ approaches. Just enrolling low-income students doesn’t close achievement and opportunity gaps; the work to make higher education more equitable cannot stop once students set foot on campus.

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