Ever since President Obama announced the inspiring and audacious goal of raising American college completion to the highest rate in the world by 2020, commentators have offered a variety of solutions—from increasing online learning, to expanding certificate and apprenticeship programs, to funding institutions based on outcomes. But according to a compelling new report by Andrew Howard Nichols of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, none of these approaches will work unless policymakers also take targeted steps to directly address income-based inequality. (Full disclosure: I sit on the Pell Institute’s Advisory Board.)
The report, Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal, makes a very powerful case that income inequality is at the center of our failure to keep pace with other countries on college completion. Over the last 30 years, bachelor’s degree attainment by age 24 in the U.S. has skyrocketed by 45 percent for those in the top income quartile, while for those in the bottom income quartile, the rate has increased just 2 percent, according to data in the report from researcher Tom Mortenson.
By age 24, students from the bottom half of the distribution have a 12.0 percent chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree, while those in the top economic half have a 58.8 percent chance. If we could raise everyone to the level of attainment met by those in the top economic half, we would far outpace other countries in bachelor degree attainment, the report notes.
How can we help close the gap between income groups? The report makes several recommendations, including defending Pell Grant funding, and monitoring income-based disparities the way that race-based disparities are currently highlighted. A few of the proposals are particularly noteworthy: