Regret the Error?

From the department of Things the Journalists Got Wrong comes news of the latest higher education lie. That’s the one about the decline in the number of low-income students going to college. It’s actually not true. The error comes from a July 7 Wall Street Journal article by Emmeline Zhao that warned,

Fewer low- and moderate-income high school graduates are attending college in America, and fewer are graduating.

Enrollment in four-year colleges was 40% in 2004 for low-income students, down from 54% in 1992, and 53% in 2004 for moderate-income students, down from 59% over the same period, according to a report recently submitted to Congress by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.

Eh, not really. As low-income students are going to college at higher rates than they ever were, and the rate is increasing. Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson set the record straight in an article they wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Advisory Committee reported that among those who had taken Algebra II, the proportion of low- and moderate-income students enrolling in four-year colleges immediately after high school was much lower in 2004 than in 1992. The percentages enrolling in two-year and other institutions were up, so the overall college enrollment rate was down only slightly.

Census data reveal that the immediate enrollment rate for all high school graduates from the lowest-income quartile was 41% in 1992, 53% in 2003, 48% in 2004, 54% in 2005, and 56% in 2008. These figures include two-year colleges and other postsecondary institutions, and of course include students with lower levels of academic preparation.

As Baum and McPherson point out, it’s obviously difficult to summarize a complicated report in a catchy headline, but come on. The bigger trouble here appears to be that the actual study revealed something that’s maybe not so interesting or surprising. While there does appear to be a shift away from four-year schools, college attendance rates among low-income Americans go up a little bit every year.

Read the actual report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer