Growing inequalities in post-secondary education means students of color less likely to enroll in college

Growing inequalities in post-secondary education means students of color less likely to enroll in college

Higher education remains the clearest pathway to the middle class for low-income families, but for millions of students every year, it remains out of reach. Low-income students are less likely than wealthier students to go to college and less likely to graduate with degrees that give them a shot at well-paying jobs if they do enroll.

These problems won’t go away on their own. Lawmakers must do more to help bring promising and proven practices that help students succeed on college campuses, especially to the students for whom a college degree will mean the most. The FINISH Act, bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate would do just that.


The magnitude of the problem to be solved is startling: Education Department data finds that five times more low-income high school graduates than high-income ones aren’t enrolled in college at all; and those who are enrolled in college are much less likely to enroll in the types of degree programs that offer the greatest payoff in the labor market. And for-profit colleges disproportionately enroll low-income and black students, while also leaving students deeper in debt and reporting lower earnings than similar public-college programs do.

Moreover, once they enroll in higher education, too many colleges have high rates of churn, with students dropping out without ever earning a credential, and low rates of college completion, particularly for low-income and underserved students. For instance, black students are far less likely to graduate, especially in the expected amount of time for their programs; and nearly two out of three associate and bachelor’s degrees are awarded to white students. Even at community colleges, where higher education programs are most affordable, fewer than one in three students graduate within one-and-a-half times the length of the program.

Despite these distressing statistics, certain colleges have implemented programs that reduce disparities for low-income students and students of color, both in terms of access and completion. The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs nearly doubled the graduation rate and significantly increased the rate of students who transferred to a four-year university. Informational outreach via text messages has been found to increase retention rates by nearly 14 percentage points. And a scholarship program in Ohio for low-income students tied to academic goals, like requiring at least a C-average, increased graduation rates by 21 percent.

Clearly, students can be successful if given appropriate supports, but interventions often require a large upfront investment, which many colleges and organizations that serve the most at-risk students struggle to afford. And colleges don’t always know the best ways to design effective programs that meet the needs of their students.

That’s where the FINISH Act can help. The bill would authorize innovation grants to test new practices, finance studies of promising practices in new contexts and expand proven strategies to more colleges, impacting tens of thousands of students. Those grants could fill a gaping need; a now-defunct program for innovation grants was able to fund only 5 percent of the hundreds of applications received in the 2014 competition.

The bill would also give the Department of Education the authority and funds needed to rigorously evaluate federal programs. Learning more about what works in higher education and better disseminating that information to college administrators is a necessary first step to changing the status quo and giving students greater odds of success.

With lawmakers now working toward a once-in-a-decade reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the time is ripe to reshape higher education practices in a way that brings outcomes from an afterthought to front of mind for organizations and institutions. Evidence and evaluation is an essential piece of that.

Clare McCann is the deputy director for federal policy with New America’s Higher Education Initiative. Ashley Clark also contributed to this piece. She is the intern for the Higher Education Initiative and a master’s candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park.