Study: Finishing College Has Become a Luxury Only the Rich Can Afford

It's a common refrain that education is a lifeline out of poverty, a chance to get the skills and knowledge you need to get a job that can lift your standard of living. Policies like the post-WWII GI Bill, which subsidized the education of returning war veterans, seemed to prove this, as that policy is estimated to have generated $7 for every dollar invested in tuition. This economic boom benefited not only individuals who were able to get quality degrees, but the country as a whole; for instance, training 450,000 engineers under the terms of the GI Bill.


But the cost of an education in the United States has skyrocketed. The impact of these higher education costs has not been equally distributed among the American population. A new study from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education finds a growing gap in college attendance rates between students from poor families versus those who are rich.

The study finds that the gap between the richest and poorest students nearly doubled since 1970. In that year, families in the bottom income quartile had bachelor's degree attainment rates of 6 percent. By 2013, they had rates of around 9 percent. The richest families had rates of 44 percent in 1970, which rose to 77 percent by 2013.

Even as this education gap has widened, the nature of college itself has changed. The rise of predatory, for-profit colleges has disproportionately captured a low-income student base. The data collected by the institute shows that 57 percent of students at these colleges are poor:

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This trend was taking off just as another one was occurring: a decline in grant support for college education. The researchers note that “the percent of average college costs covered by the maximum Pell Grant declined by 40 percentage points, from a high of 67 percent in 1975 to a low of 27 percent in 2012.”

To summarize, this means that there has barely been any progress at all for poor students trying to attend college; they are lagging behind their richer peers in greater numbers than 45 years ago. Even if they do get to college, they're facing higher tuition and less support than they were half a century ago.

That may be why President Obama's proposal to make community college free is so popular. Americans know the education system isn't working for everyone. The question is whether politicians will hear their voices.

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