An Expansion of Educational Opportunities Formerly Hard to Envision

In searching the other day for updated, albeit mundane college data I came across, as the statistical gods sometimes allow, truly remarkable enrollment data I had never seen before.  (Before going any further, I understand if your interest in reading any more of this is tepid, but I would urge you to do so, as the numbers show that lower-income students are making more progress in at least starting college than is commonly assumed.  This is good news.)

The key statistic is the “Immediate College Enrollment Rate” as calculated by the Census Bureau and reported by National Center for Education Statistics.  The rate is defined as the “annual percentage of high school completers who enroll in 2- or 4-year colleges in the fall immediately following high school completion.”

For the nation as a whole, the rate increased from 63 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2016.  Impressive.  Or, 2.2 million students out of 3.1 million completers enrolled in 2016.

The rate for students from high-income families in 2016 was 83 percent, which unsurprisingly was higher than for students from middle-income and low-income families.  But here is the big finding: “There was no measurable gap between low-income and middle-income students in 2016.”  Actually, while the gap wasn’t “measurable,” there was one: 67 percent compared to 64 percent, with low-income students on top.

Think about that.  Students from families with the lowest 20 percent of incomes enrolled in either a two-year or four-year college at the same rate as those from families with incomes in the middle 60 percent of incomes in 2016.

In addition, while the enrollment gap between students from high-income and low-income families was 30 percentage points in 2000, it had fallen to 16 percentage points in 2016.

And as for the gap between students from middle-income and low-income families, it fell from 12 percentage points in 2000 to the previously noted “no measurable gap” in 2016.

Do these numbers reflect what some might describe and favor as egalitarian heaven, or even its cusp?  Of course not.  Racial differences remain.  As does the fact upper-income students are more likely to attend four-year schools and lower-income students are more likely to attend two-year schools.  As does the fact that more-affluent students earn proportionately more four-year degrees and graduate degrees than do less-affluent students.

Still, do these data reflect substantial progress in expanding equal educational opportunities in the United States that was hard to envision not long ago?  My goodness, yes.