To be published in a forthcoming issue of ACE's The Presidency, the report found that between 2008 and 2013, college enrollment rates among high school graduates from the bottom quintile of the population (based on family income) dropped more than 10 percentage points, from 55.9 percent to 45.5 percent, the largest sustained decline in four decades. In comparison, the Census Bureau found that overall college enrollment rates fell less than 3 percentage points, from 68.6 percent to 65.9 percent.
The drop happened at the same time that the Obama administration was pushing to boost college access and completion rates, federal and private grant aid was increasing, and high school graduation rates were rising. The decline could be due to fast-rising costs at many colleges making higher education less affordable for low-income students, as well as the availability of more jobs, said ACE senior vice president Terry W. Hartle, who co-wrote the report with senior policy research analyst Christopher J. Nellum. "We think that others and ourselves need to be asking some pretty hard questions about why might this have happened," Hartle added. "This information cries out for more analysis."
Anthony Carnevale, who directs the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Post he wasn't surprised by the findings, as a low-income student's decisions about college are more sensitive to broader economic trends and cost than those of more affluent students. According to Carnevale, college as it is currently designed tends to drive away low-income students, who find that they have to slog through two years of general requirements before focusing on skills that will make them more employable. Moreover, many low-income families don't want to take on the expense of student loans. Better counseling could help students minimize the risk associated with large loan bills and understand the earnings-potential boost that comes with a degree, said Carnevale.
In Washington, D.C., a comprehensive counseling program run by the nonprofit DC College Access Program has helped push local college enrollment rates above the average for low-income students, which has held steady since 2006 at between 58 percent and 62 percent. "I think it just tells you how strong a college-going culture we've been able to build over the past fifteen years," said DC-CAP president and CEO Argelia Rodriguez.