The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College enrollment rates are dropping, especially among low-income students

Low-income high school graduates were far less likely to enroll in higher education in 2013 than in 2008, a downward trend that came at the same time the Obama administration was pushing to boost college access and completion, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data.

College enrollment rates have fallen for all students since 2008, which is not surprising given that the economy has improved since then and therefore more young people can find jobs right out of high school. But the enrollment rates among the poorest students has fallen much faster, according to the analysis, which is slated to publish in a forthcoming edition of the Presidency, a publication of the American Council on Education.

According to an annual Census Bureau survey, overall college enrollment rates dropped three percentage points between 2008 and 2013, from 69 percent to 66 percent.

But college enrollment among the poorest high school graduates — defined as those from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes — dropped 10 percentage points during the same time period, the largest sustained drop in four decades, according to the analysis. In 2013, just 46 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, according to the data.

Enrollment was dropping at the same time as federal and private grant aid was increasing and high school graduation rates were rising — two trends that higher education advocates hoped would boost college access for poor youth.

“We think that others and ourselves need to be asking some pretty hard questions about why might this have happened,” said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, who co-wrote the report with ACE’s Christopher J. Nellum. “This information cries out for more analysis.”

Hartle said policymakers should be particularly concerned because more than half of the nation’s K-12 public school students are considered to be from low-income families.

[Majority of U.S. public schools students are low-income]

Hartle said that the trend could be due to fast-rising sticker prices at many colleges that lead low-income students to deem higher education unaffordable. Or it could be due to the economic recovery and the availability of more jobs. It could be, still, that the data are wrong: The data from the Census Bureau survey are the best available, he said, but the survey covers just one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. population.

Anthony Carnevale, a research professor who directs the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said that he wasn’t surprised by the findings. A low-income student’s decisions about college are more sensitive to broader economic trends and to sticker prices than a more affluent student’s might be, he said.

That’s in part because while affluent young people often think of themselves as students who might work on the side, low-income students tend to see themselves differently: “They see themselves as workers who are going to school,” Carnevale said, so going to school is about getting a better job.

Carnevale argues that college as it’s currently designed drives away low-income students because they often have to slog through two years of general requirements before they focus on their major and on skills that will make them more employable.

Many low-income families also don’t want to risk taking out loans, he said. Stronger counseling could help students minimize the risk and understand the earnings-potential boost that comes with a degree.

A strong comprehensive counseling program has helped the District push its college enrollment rates above the low-income average. The nonprofit organization D.C. College Access Program has counselors in every D.C. traditional and charter school, working with students to apply for college and for scholarships.

Enrollment rates have held steady since 2006, at between 58 percent and 62 percent, said Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive of D.C. CAP. Three-quarters of D.C. high school seniors complete the federal application for financial aid, a greater proportion than any state.

“I think it just tells you how strong a college-going culture we’ve been able to build over the past 15 years,” Rodriguez said.

[D.C. program helped put DCPS on the college map]

Below is a graph showing the long-term trends in enrollment for low-income, high-income and all students. It is based on a three-year moving average, so the figures are somewhat different than the graph at the top of the page.