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For the Poor, the Graduation Gap Is Even Wider Than
the Enrollment Gap

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University of Michigan

(Originally published in the New York Times, 2 June 2015)


RICH AND POOR STUDENTS DON’T MERELY ENROLL in college at different rates; they also complete it at different rates. The graduation gap is even wider than the enrollment gap.


In 2002, researchers with the National Center for Education Statistics started tracking a cohort of 15,000 high school sophomores. The project, called the Education Longitudinal Study, recorded information about the students’ academic achievement, college entry, work history and college graduation. A recent publication examines the completed education of these young people, who are now in their late 20s.


The study divided students into four equally sized groups, or quartiles, depending on their parents’ education, income and occupation. The students in the lowest quartile had parents with the lowest income and education, more likely to work in unskilled jobs. Those in the highest quartile had parents with the highest income and education, those more likely to be professionals or managers.


In both groups, most of the teenagers had high hopes for college. Over all, more than 70 percent of sophomores planned to earn a bachelor’s degree. In the top quartile, 87 percent expected to get at least a bachelor’s, with 24 percent aiming for an advanced degree.


In the bottom quartile, 58 percent of students expected to get at least a bachelor’s degree and 12 percent to go on to graduate school.


Thirteen years later, we can see who achieved their goals.


Among the participants from the most disadvantaged families, just 14 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree.


That is, one out of four of the disadvantaged students who had hoped to get a bachelor’s had done so. Among those from the most advantaged families, 60 percent had earned a bachelor’s, about two-thirds of those who had planned to.

Seeing these numbers, some readers may wonder whether the poor children were simply overconfident, with aspirations outstripping their academic skills. Maybe the low-income children weren’t completing college because they were not able.


The survey lets us check this hypothesis. As part of the study, high school students completed a battery of tests in math and reading. And the results show that the hypothesis is wrong: educational achievement does not explain the gap in bachelor’s degree attainment.


Consider the teenagers who scored among the top 25 percent of students on the math test. In this group, the students from the top socioeconomic quartile had very high bachelor’s degree completion rates: 74 percent of the most advantaged students with top math scores earned a four-year college degree by the time they were in their late 20s.


But only 41 percent of the poorest students with the top math scores did so. That’s a completion gap of 33 percentage points, not much smaller than the overall gap of 46 percentage points.


Academic skills in high school, at least as measured by a standardized math test, explain only a small part of the socioeconomic gap in educational attainment.


Here’s another startling comparison: A poor teenager with top scores and a rich teenager with mediocre scores are equally likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In both groups, 41 percent receive a degree by their late 20s.


And even among the affluent students with the lowest scores, 21 percent managed to receive a bachelor’s degree, compared with just 5 percent of the poorest students. Put bluntly, class trumps ability when it comes to college graduation.


Poor students are increasingly falling behind well-off children in their test scores, as recent research by Sean Reardon at Stanford University shows.


That is, any poor children who manage to score at the top of the class are increasingly beating the odds. Yet even when they beat the odds in high school, they still must fight a new set of tough odds when it comes to completing college.

Susan Dynarski will speak at the Reverberations of Inequality Opening Conference, Panel 3: Policy Responses to Inequality, September 20, 3:20-5:00 pm, 3501 Sansom Street. Click here to register.

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