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The widening of college entry and completion rates between the rich and poor has been occurring steadily over the past 70 years, according to data released this month by researchers at the University of Michigan.

The working paper, which uses data from the U.S. Census and the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, also notes a striking and substantial difference between the sexes in educational attainment, with women outpacing men in every demographic group. The largest gap between men and women in completing college is at the highest economic range, with women at a 13-percentage-point advantage over their male counterparts.

“It was surprising to us to find the female advantage is the largest among the highest quartile,” said Susan Dynarski, a co-author of the study and associate professor of public policy and of education at the University of Michigan. “When you hear about ‘the boy problem,’ you tend to hear about low-income groups.”

Dynarski said it is well-documented that rich children have been outpacing poor children in postsecondary attainment at an increasing rate. In addition, there is no shortage of evidence that girls have the advantage over boys in higher education. Dynarski said she and her co-author, Martha Bailey, assistant professor of economics at Michigan, wanted to look at this cross-section: How did this relationship between boys and girls look when family income levels were factored in?

The paper pulled data from two cohorts: those born from 1961-1964 and those born from 1979-1982, cross-referenced at four family income levels.

The female advantage is present across racial groups, as well, according to the data. In 1981, the most recent birth year calculated, white women have an 11 percent point advantage over white men, black women are at 9 percentage points and Hispanic women at 6 percentage points, according to the paper.

Dynarski said she can’t speculate on the reasons behind the advantage for women from high-income families, but said social science and labor market factors may be at play.  She said there is “work to be done” on this question.

“When you look at income inequality, people tend to look at explanations like tuition and those price barriers, or at school quality that reaches across rich and poor districts,” she said. “But when you look at sex differences, girls and boys are distributed across rich and poor school districts and you have to start looking at a different set of explanations.”

The study also emphasized the growing gap between rich and poor income groups as it relates to attending and completing college.  The disparity in the 1979-1980 cohort between the lowest income group and the highest income group entering college is 50 percentage points, the paper found.  That number is “enormous,” Dynarski said, and it’s a trend that continues to grow.

About 30 percent of the lowest quartile (meaning a family income of $25,000 or less) entered college, while 80 percent of the top quartile (meaning $85,000 and more) entered college, according to the data.

A smaller disparity is found for those students who complete college, with the lowest-income group graduating at a rate of 9 percent and the highest at 54 percent.

Dynarski said this contrast can be seen most starkly looking at the averages of those two income groups. The average family earnings of the lowest income group stayed at about $13,000 for the group born in the early 1960s and the one born in the early 1980s. The highest family income group increased from $114,000 to $140,000 during that same time period, Dynarski said.

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