Stick With It, Funders. Your Push to Boost Low-Income Enrollment in College Matters

A recent study by the American Council on Education (ACE), reported by the Washington Post, may prove unsettling for organizations and funders who are focused on increasing college readiness and access among low-income students. But the study also underscores the enormity of the task and why the work of these groups is so important.

ACE reported that college enrollment by low-income students dropped 10 percentage points between 2008 and 2013. Although overall college enrollment rates dipped slightly, falling from 69 percent in 2008 to 66 percent five years later, the Post reported that only 46 percent of students from low-income backgrounds enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. More troubling is that these trends coincide with efforts by the Obama administration to boost college access and completion among all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Terry Hartle, a co-author of the ACE report, suggested that rising higher education costs could be driving the downward trend in college enrollment, as "sticker shock" may lead many low-income families to deem college unaffordable. They also may be less willing to risk taking on debt to finance a college education.

An improving economy and the greater availability of jobs during the period studied by ACE could be another factor. A researcher on education and work force trends suggested that low-income students tend to see themselves as workers who are going to school.

A third possibility is that the data does not paint an accurate picture of higher education trends nationwide. ACE relied on data from a Census Bureau survey. The data is considered the best available, but the survey covers less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Regardless of whether any of these explanations — or others, or a combination — account for the drop in college enrollment, the study's findings illustrate the stakes involved in this issue. Because students from low-income families account for more than half of the nation's K-12 public school enrollment and because the majority of new jobs require education beyond high school, postsecondary schooling is an essential step in narrowing wage gaps between low-income families and their more affluent counterparts.

The good news is that funders across the country are addressing the problem on all fronts, as we've reported often, and there is no indication that they are slowing down. Examples of these wide-ranging efforts include an initiative by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that rewards colleges with the greatest success in enrolling and graduating students from low-income backgrounds. Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty has funded an array of programs aimed at greater academic preparedness and improved college access to make college more affordable for low-income students and help them avoid the remediation trap into which many students fall. On the affordability front, the Lumina Foundation is working to develop stronger benchmarks to determine what families can afford.


But readiness and access are only part of the problem. Funders recognize that more work is necessary to help disadvantaged students succeed in college and persist to graduation. Examples of work in these areas include programs funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to provide peer coaching efforts and counseling services (kind of a college student equivalent of employee assistance programs in the private sector) to help low-income and first-generation college students persist to graduation.


With these and other examples of efforts to boost college enrollment and graduation among students from the nation's lowest income quintiles, let's hope future research by ACE will show a reversal of the trend shown in this newest report.