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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed that nothing is permanent, except change. Such classical wisdom is once again evident in a recent release of data from the National Center for Education Statistics on the college enrollment patterns of recent high school graduates. Since 1975, when recordkeeping began, a student’s chance of enrolling in college rose reliably with his family’s income. No longer. Low-income students now enroll in college at a higher rate than their middle-income peers.
Roughly 70% of students who graduate high school enroll in a college (either two-year or four-year) the following autumn, according to the most recent data. Wealthy students enroll in college at the highest rate, with 83% of recent high school graduates in the top quintile of the income distribution going on to college.
But below the top quintile, reality diverges from the patterns one might expect. Among students in the bottom income quintile, that college-enrollment rate is 67%, compared to 64% for students from the middle three quintiles. While the difference is still within the margin of error, it marks an undeniable reversal of the historical norm.
In rates of college enrollment, wealthy students have long outpaced their lower-income peers. But the gap is narrowing. In 1986, 73% of top-quintile high school graduates went on to college, compared to 37% of bottom-quintile graduates. That made for an “enrollment gap” between rich and poor students of 36 percentage points. But as of 2016, the gap has narrowed to just 16 percentage points.
Most recent high school graduates who enroll in college go to a four-year school, though a substantial minority attend two-year colleges. Among recent high school graduates from families earning below $30,000 per year, 39% enroll in a four-year college, while another 24% enroll in a two-year college. By contrast, 61% of students from wealthy families (those earning above $100,000 per year) enroll in four-year schools and 21% enroll in two-year schools.
Also of interest are the trajectories of recent high school graduates who do not immediately enroll in college. Most find jobs, but those who do not tend to skew low-income. Just 6% of high-income recent graduates are neither employed nor enrolled in college, compared to 19% of low-income recent graduates. Just 3% of recent high school graduates pursue any sort of vocational training, a proportion which varies little across income groups.
Some recent high school graduates who do not immediately enroll in college may do so at a later point. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 23% of first-year college students are over the age of 20. However, students who follow this path are also far less likely to complete their degrees.
As low-income students catch up to and even surpass their wealthier peers in college enrollment, it’s worth remembering that enrollment is only half the equation. For their education to be worthwhile, students must actually complete their college degrees—which only 57% do within six years. While the “college enrollment gap” between rich and poor has closed in recent years, whether it pays off remains to be seen.
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