Low-Income Students Are Key to Meeting 2020 College Attainment Goals

Attaining President Barack Obama’s goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020 can only be attained if more attention and help is given to students in the bottom half of the socio-economic spectrum, a new report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education finds.

Obama articulated his goal in 2009, noting that the United States had fallen to 12th among developing counties in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who have a college degree. According to the latest figures available – from 2008 – 41.6 percent of Americans in that age group hold college degrees. But  only 12 percent of 24-year-olds whose families are in the bottom half by income distribution have attained college degrees, compared with 58.8 percent of students whose families are in the top half of the income brackets. 

“If all Americans attained bachelor’s degrees by age 24 at the same rate as individuals from the top half of the income distributions (i.e., 58.8 percent), the United States would currently have the highest share of bachelor’s degree recipients in the world,” according to the report, “Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal.

Conversely, the report said, if all American attained bachelor’s degrees by 24 at the same rate as the bottom half of the income distribution, the United States would rank near the bottom of the 30 developed countries.

Yet, the report notes, these low-income students are rarely the focus of college attainment efforts, and  while they are left behind, the education system is “rather effective” for students in the upper levels of the income brackets.

The report makes four recommendations for decreasing the disparities between the college attainment of those in the upper and lower halves of the income brackets.

  1. Set and track goals to reduce income-based disparities on key educational outcomes related to the 2020 goal.
  2. Funnel federal dollars, such as Title I funds, to the low-income, underperforming students that need it most. Today, these funds are apportioned to schools based on the local expenditures, sending more money to schools that spend more, instead of to the schools that need the money most, according to the report.
  3. Protect the Pell Grant against cuts that will reduce college access for low-income students.Among other ways, the report suggests not permitting Pell Grants at for-profit schools with low graduation rates or high loan default rates.
  4. Increase supplemental college access and support services for low-income students throughout the educational pipeline. The report criticizes cuts in the 2011 budget compromise to TRIO and GEAR UP programs, which prepare lower-income students for college.

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