The Poor in College

In the last 40 years the United States has made great efforts to give more Americas access to college. In particular, federal grants and many loan programs are specifically designed to get poor students into college.

It isn’t working out so well. According to an article by Jason De Parle in the New York Times:

Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees….Now the gap is 45 points.

Why? The article, which takes as its anecdote the story of a group of Texas friends where three girls went to college, and none graduated, makes a great deal out of family and personal choices. Someone’s mother had a drinking problem. The girls made poor romantic choices. Other possibilities?

Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.

While soaring incomes and neighborhood segregation are important, it’s probably that last part that matters most.

The reason poor people are less likely to complete college than they were 30 years ago is because public college is a lot more expensive. This is not really that complicated. In 1992, the average net price of public college was $1,920 a year (in 2012 dollars). Now it’s $2,910.

“Low-income students… are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.” And they’re right to be deterred. It’s true that family structure and neighborhood schools are important but, from a policy standpoint, such things are mostly incidental.

The number one reason students drop out of college is that it costs too much. This might be a hard problem to solve, but it’s not really a hard problem to understand.

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