'Double Whammy of Disadvantage'

June 16, 2008

Much has been made of the need to improve access to higher education for students from low-income backgrounds and those who are part of the first generation in their families to attend college. But the many recent initiatives by colleges to increase their recruitment of and financial aid for such students will only truly succeed if the traditionally underrepresented students thrive academically once they're there.

New data compiled by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education suggest that on that count, the picture is not good.

The analysis, presented by the institute's interim director, Jennifer Engle, at the Student Financial Aid Research Network Conference Saturday in Baltimore, makes abundantly clear how the deck is stacked against students who both come from low-income families and are first-generation college students -- what the researchers call the "double whammy of disadvantage."

Students who are both low income and first generation are far less likely than their peers to transfer; six years after starting at public two-year or for-profit colleges, only 26 percent of low-income, first generation students have transferred anywhere else, compared to about 40 percent of those who are either first generation or low income and 62 percent of students who are neither. The numbers who have transferred to four-year institutions are even lower -- 14 percent for low-income and first-generation students, 25 percent for those who are one or the other, and 50 percent for students who are neither first generation nor low income.

And first-generation, low-income students are one fifth as likely -- 11 percent compared to 55 percent -- to have earned a bachelor's degree after six years as are students who are neither low income nor first generation.

"For too many low-income, first-generation students, the newly opened door to American higher education has been a revolving one," said Vincent Tinto, a Pell Institute Senior Scholar and distinguished professor of higher education at Syracuse University, who worked with Engle on the new data. "The unavoidable fact is that while college access has increased for this population, the opportunity to successfully earn a college degree, especially the four-year degree, has not."

Engle said the researchers had decided to focus intently on students who were both low income and first generation because such students are disproportionately represented in the TRIO programs, for which the institute's parent organization, the Council for Opportunity in Education, advocates.

Despite the increased emphasis by public and private four-year colleges on recruiting underrepresented students, low-income, first-generation students are disproportionately represented at public two-year and for-profit colleges, as seen in the table below:

Type of Institution Attended by Students Entering Postsecondary Education in 2003-2004

  Public Two-Year Public Four-Year Private Four-Year For-Profit Other More Than One Institution
Low-Income, First-Generation 52% 13% 6% 21% 2% 5%
Low-Income or First-Generation Only 53 21 10 10 1 6
Not Low-Income and Not First-Generation 35 35 19 4 1 6

Nearly two-thirds of the low-income, first-generation students who enrolled in two-year public colleges said they intend to earn at least a bachelor's degree, Engle said.

But once they are enrolled, low-income first-generation students are far less likely to move through higher education and advance toward a degree. Twenty-six percent of those who enrolled in college in 1995-96 did not return enroll in their second year, compared to 7 percent of students who were neither low income nor first generation. The comparable figures were 32 percent and 15 percent at two-year institutions, 12 and 4 percent at public four-year institutions, and 26 and 18 percent at for-profit colleges.

After six years, as seen in the table below, just 11 percent of low-income and first-generation students have attained a bachelor's degree, compared to 26 percent of students who are one or the other and 55 percent of those who are neither low income nor first generation. (Just 5 percent of low-income/first-generation students at two-year institutions had attained a bachelor's, and less than 1 percent of those at for-profit colleges.) More than two in five first-generation, low-income students are no longer enrolled in any institution, compared to 20 percent of peers who are neither first generation nor low income.

Six-Year Outcomes by Type of Institution First Attended

  Low Income and First Generation Either Low Income or First Generation Neither Low Income or First Generation
All Institutions      
Attained certificate or associate degree 32% 21% 11%
Attained bachelor's 11 26 55
Still enrolled 13 16 15
Not enrolled 43 38 20
Public 2-Year      
Attained certificate or associate degree 30 23 23
Attained bachelor's 5 9 24
Still enrolled 14 19 23
Not enrolled 51 49 31
Public 4-Year      
Attained certificate or associate degree 11 7 5
Attained bachelor's 34 50 66
Still enrolled 22 18 14
Not enrolled 33 25 15
Private 4-Year      
Attained certificate or associate degree 9 6 2
Attained bachelor's 43 64 80
Still enrolled 16 9 7
Not enrolled 32 21 11
Attained certificate or associate degree 59 62 46
Attained bachelor's 0 3 8
Still enrolled 3 4 5
Not enrolled 37 31 4

Seventy-four percent of the low-income/first-generation students who enrolled in either two-year public or for-profit institutions never transferred to another institution, compared to 38 percent of peers who are neither low income nor first generation, according to the Pell Institute's data.

A broad mix of factors -- financial, cultural and academic -- may account for the underperformance of low-income first-generation students, the Pell Institute's data show. The students come into college with many more of the risk factors that researchers have widely embraced as diminishing college success, including delaying entry into postsecondary education after high school, attending college part time, working full-time while enrolled, having dependent children, being a single parent, and having a GED. The average first-generation/low-income student has three such risk factors, while the average student who is neither first generation nor low income has one.

Once they are in college, they are more likely to have unmet financial need than are other students. They also work significantly more than other students, and those who work more are less likely to have earned degrees and to remain enrolled six years after entering, as seen in the table below.

Six-Year Persistence Outcome by Hours Worked Per WeekWhen Last Enrolled

  Earned Certificate or Associate Degree Earned Bachelor's Degree Still Enrolled Not Enrolled
Low-Income, First-Generation
Did not work 35% 17% 27% 22%
Worked 1 to 20 hours 25 46 16 13
Worked more than 20 hours 31 14 25 30
Not Low-Income or First-Generation
Did not work 8 73 16 4
Worked 1 to 20 hours 5 78 12 5
Worked more than 20 hours 16 41 21 23

The poor academic performance of students who are low income and first generation, particularly when they enroll in two-year and for-profit institutions, Engle said, suggests that more of those students should be encouraged to enroll in four-year colleges and universities, where their chances of ultimately attaining a bachelor's degree will improve.

But recognizing that significant numbers will continue to choose to attend two-year or for-profit institutions, or to have no choice but to do so, Engle and her fellow researchers offer a set of recommendations for those institutions and state and federal policy makers. Among them:

  • Strengthening academic preparation for college, such as greater access to quality college prep classes and better information about college "gateway" courses while students are still in high school.
  • Increasing financial aid for college.
  • Improving transfer rates to four-year colleges, by strengthening transfer counseling and developing favorable articulation policies and agreements.
  • Easing the transition to college, through better bridge/orientation programs and special programs for at-risk popultions.
  • Encouraging engagement on the college campus, including by creating better work study policies to let students work on campuses.

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