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Low income hinders college attendance for even the highest achieving students

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Snapshot for October 12, 2005.

Low income hinders college attendance for even the highest achieving students

That poverty and income affects educational outcomes adversely is well established.  What is less well appreciated is the fact that even for academically high-performing students, income and poverty greatly affects subsequent educational attainment such as completing college.

In 1988, the Department of Education began a longitudinal study of students then in the 8th grade, following them over the next 12 years as they progressed past high school and college and into the labor market.  The study finds large, glaring disparities in high school and college completion rates according to their family’s socioeconomic status1 (SES) when grouped according to their 8th grade math test scores.

Figure A shows the percentage of people who have completed a college degree.  It groups them into quartiles (groups of 25%) based on their performance in 8th grade mathematics and their SES.  There are three test score groups—low score (kids scoring in the bottom quartile), middle score (kids scoring in the two middle quartiles), and high score (kids scoring in the top quartile).  In each test score group (low, middle, and high) there are three bars shown, one for those in the bottom quartile in terms of SES (low income), one for those in the two middle quartiles in SES (middle income), and one for those in the top quartile (high income).

Figure A. Educational outcomes and socioeconomic status

The figure shows great disparities in college completion based on socioeconomic status.  The worst scoring students from high SES families complete college as frequently as the best students from low SES families.  Only 29% of high-achieving kids belonging to the lowest SES quartile obtained a bachelor’s degree, compared to 74% of high-achieving kids in the top SES quartile. This success rate for high-aptitude poor students (29%) is less than the success rate for students with the lowest aptitude from the top SES families.  Of these well-off but less academically meritorious students, 30% completed a bachelor’s degree even though they had scored in the bottom quartile in 8th grade math. 

The fact that low-income students who had been performing at a high level in 8th grade still have less than a one-third chance of completing college should be of urgent concern to educators and policymakers alike.  With labor market opportunities intimately related to educational attainment, income levels should not inhibit the ability to attain higher levels of education.

This week’s Snapshot was written by EPI economist Joydeep Roy with assistance from economist Sylvia Allegretto and research assistant Yulia Fungard.

1. Socioeconomic status was measured by a composite score of parental education and occupations, and family income.

Fox, M.A., B.A. Connolly, and T.D. Snyder. 2005. Youth Indicators 2005: Trends in the Well-Being of American Youth. Washington, D.C.U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Table 21. .

See related work on Wages Incomes and Wealth

See more work by Joydeep Roy