According to the American Council on Education, the percentage of low-income students enrolling in college has gone down. What's going on?
ACE reports that the percentage of recently-graduated low-income students who enrolled in college dropped from 55.9% in 2008 to 45.5% in 2013. College enrollments also dropped for other income groups, but not by nearly as much.
Can the drop be attributed to insufficient federal student aid? Probably not. The Department of Education reported that federal student aid increased by 29% from 2009 to 2012--rising from $129 billion in FY 2009 to $166.9 billion in FY 2012.
And Pell Grant funding (grants to low-income college students) actually tripled from 2007 to 2011, going from $13.6 billion in FY 2007 to $41.6 billion.
Perceived cost of higher education. ACE speculated that the perceived cost of higher education may have discourage low-income students from going to college, and this makes sense. Low-income young people may not be aware that many private colleges actually discount their tuition by more than 40 percent for incoming freshmen. In other words, potential students from poor families may not know that the sticker price is only the sucker price and that most first-year students get the benefit of deep discounts.
Going to work rather than going to college. ACE suggested another explanation for the percentage drop in low-income college students: many low-income students are simply skipping the college experience and going to work. This explanation also makes senses.
In my own family, I have a nephew who dropped out of college and got a job as a pipe fitter working in the shipbuilding industry. He's making good money and he found a girl friend who is also making good money as a pipe fitter. In fact, my nephew is making more money in his present job than he would make if he got a college degree and got a job as a school teacher. Is he likely to go back to college? I don't think so.
Low-income families have gotten wise to the for-profit college industry. I think there is a third possible explanation for the drop in low-income students going to college: low-income families may have gotten wise to the for-profit college industry.
All over the country, state attorney generals are investigating the for-profit colleges based on allegations that these colleges have engaged in misrepresentations and fraud. Some for-profits have been fined. Corinthian Colleges filed for bankruptcy and several for-profits have closed.
It could be that low-income and minority students--who have been the target of the for-profit colleges--have figured out that many of these joints charge too much and don't deliver on their promises.
Low-income individuals are going to college in smaller numbers, and this may not be bad. If they can get good jobs without going to college then they can avoid the huge opportunity costs of being a college student--forgone wages and student loans.
And if young people from low-income families are becoming more appreciative of the risk of borrowing money to attend a for-profit college, that is certainly good news. Although the Obama administration hasn't been as aggressive as I think it should be toward the for-profit college industry, it has taken some steps to rein in abuses. And state officials have taken action against abusive for-profits colleges as well. This is good news.
American Council on Education. ACE Fact Sheet on Higher Education. Pell Grant Funding History (1976 to 2010). Accessible at:
Misty Baily. Attorney
Generals Expand Probe into For Profit Colleges. Education News, January 14, 2014. Accessible at: /www.educationnews.org/higher-education/attorney-generals-expand-probe-into-for-profit-colleges/#sthash.pKZVeW5V.dpuf
Kelly Field. Attorneys General Take Aim at For-Profit Colleges Institutional Loan Programs, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 20, 2012. Accessible at: http://chronicle.com/article/Attorneys-General-Take-Aim-at/131254/
Scott Jaschik. The Missing Low Income Students: Study finds drop in percentage of low-income students enrolling in college. Inside Higher Education, November 25, 2015. Accessible at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/11/25/study-finds-drop-percentage-low-income-students-enrolling-college
U.S. Department of Education. Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Summary--February 14, 2011. Accessible at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget12/summary/edlite-section2d.html
U.S. Department of Education. Pell Grant Funding Status. Accessible at: