The Missing Low-Income Students

Study finds notable drop in proportion of recent high school graduates from bottom 20 percent of family incomes who are enrolling in college.

November 25, 2015

Since 2008, student aid from federal and institutional sources has increased. Political and foundation leaders have also focused on the importance of a postsecondary education, and the need to increase college attainment.

But in the years since 2008, the proportion of low-income recent high school graduates who enroll in college has seen a significant drop, according to a new analysis from the American Council on Education.

In 2008, 55.9 percent of such high school graduates enrolled in college. By 2013, that figure dropped to 45.5 percent. While overall enrollment rates increased just after the economic downturn hit in 2008, they have fallen for all income groups since. However, the drop for those from low-income families has been the greatest.

College Enrollment Rates for Recent High School Graduates

  2008 2013
All 68.6% 65.9%
High income 81.9% 78.5%
Middle income 65.2% 63.8%
Low income 55.9% 45.5%

The analysis is based on U.S. Census Bureau data. For the above comparisons, the ACE study defined low-income families as those from the bottom 20 percent, high income as from the top 20 percent and everyone else in the middle group.

The trends are particularly troubling, the analysis said, because they come at a time when high school graduation rates are going up, meaning that the country has the potential to see a higher share of its population earn a college credential.

While cost may be a factor in the decision of whether to enroll in college, the analysis notes that the change in average net price (what students actually pay, as opposed to sticker price) has dropped at two-year colleges during the period studied, and has increased relatively modestly at four-year institutions.

But one possible theory offered by the analysis to explain the drop is that the perceived cost of college may be the issue at play here. "The rapid price increases in recent years, especially in the public college sector, may have led many students -- particularly low-income students -- to think that college is out of reach financially," the report says.

Other possible explanations, according to the study, include a possibility that more of these graduates are entering the workforce without a degree, that these graduates may not see the economic value of higher education or that the data reflect the shift in enrollment patterns seen at the end of an economic downturn.

Whatever the explanation, the analysis says the trend is troubling.

"These data are even more worrisome with this fact in mind: while the percentage of low-income students in elementary and secondary schools is increasing, the percentage of low-income students who go on to college is falling," the analysis says. "Said a bit differently, at the same time that low-income individuals are enrolling in college at lower rates, the majority of young adults in the precollege education pipeline are from those same low-income communities."

The authors of the report are Christopher J. Nellum, a senior policy research analyst at ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, and Terry W. Hartle, ACE’s senior vice president for government and public affairs. The analysis will appear in the winter issue of The Presidency, an ACE magazine.


Back to Top