An increasing number of low-income students are graduating from high school and enrolling in college, but their success in attaining postsecondary degrees has remained flat over the past decade, says a new report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) released Wednesday.
The report, entitled “A Portrait of Low-Income Young Adults in Education,” is the first in a series of reports that examines impoverished young adults and their role in the nation’s college completion push.
Using data from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, the report states that 44 percent, or nearly 16 million, of Americans between 18 and 26 lived in poverty in the U.S in 2008. Despite the numerous documented challenges the demographic faces, most—60 percent—low-income young adults were attending or had attended a higher education institution. Of those, only 11 percent actually earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in 2008.
The report doesn’t delve into the experiences, persistence or types of institutions that low-income students are attending, but IHEP’s lead researcher says the report data indicate a changing awareness among students of higher education’s benefits.
“There is some recognition that a college degree is what you need to escape poverty,” said IHEP’s director of research and evaluation, Dr. Gregory Kienzl. “For most that is occurring, but not all.”
As the proportion of low-income student college enrollment increased by 5 percent from 2000 to 2008, the percentage of high school non-completers also declined by about the same amount across all groups. The largest decreases in the dropout rates emerged among Blacks and Hispanics between 2000 and 2008, from 34 to 26 percent and 40 to 28 percent, respectively.
Nonetheless, disparities persist along racial and ethnic lines at the college level. Low-income White and Asian students fare better in reaching postsecondary education than their Black, Hispanic and Native American counterparts. Authors attribute the gap to the larger share of high school non-completers among Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.
Both Black and Hispanic low-income young adults represent the fastest growing group of college enrollees. But again, degree attainment levels for all groups in the last decade have been relatively flat, increasing from 10 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2008.
A disturbing discovery in the report found that, even among low-income students that earned postsecondary degrees in 2008, about 10 percent are still poor.
“In this push for college completion, it’s one thing to say everyone needs to get a degree, but it’s something completely different getting a degree that has value,” Kienzl said. “You can look at 10 percent as a small number or a huge problem, but ideally we want it to be zero.”
The statistic is not unique to the year 2008 but repeats in other cohort data dating back to 2000, Kienzl said, suggesting more questions about what students are encountering in college.
Admittedly, he said, the 10 percent could represent a point of equilibrium describing just how many people will always be poor regardless of policy changes in higher education.
“But it’s hard to tell,” Kienzl noted, adding that IHEP’s forthcoming reports will ask questions about student pathways, outcomes and obstacles. “We are trying to situate low-income students in this college completion debate to make sure we aren’t giving out degrees willy-nilly but are careful and clear about what we want to achieve.”