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Family Income Closely Tied to Pathways Students Choose in College

New financial aid information provided by the federal government shows the pathways that students choose in college are closely tied to their family's income. This is especially noteworthy at a time when research shows completion gaps between wealthy and poor students are widening, and graduation rates vary widely by institution type.

An analysis of IPEDS data for first-time, full-time college undergraduate students by Andrew Gillen at Education Sector this month shows high concentrations of low-income students attend public two-year colleges and for-profit, four-year colleges. 

Overall, about 1.86 million degree-seeking students at institutions that receive Title IV federal student aid (Pell Grants and subsidized student loans) in 2010-11 are included in the IPEDS data. Of those students who receive federal aid, Gillen notes that more than half come from homes with an annual income of less than $30,000.

What's interesting is where those students land, despite efforts to diversify campus populations.

At public, two-year community colleges, more than 80 percent of students receiving aid are from families making less than $48,000, and most come from families earning under $30,000. Gillen found public, two-year colleges have as many aid recipients as public four-year and private nonprofit colleges combined.

Here's the number of students receiving federal financial aid from households with annual incomes below $30,000, according to the Education Sector analysis:

• Public, two-year colleges: 300,000

• Public, four-year colleges: 220,000

• Private, nonprofit four-year colleges: 110,000

• Private, for-profit four-year colleges: 70,000.

At public four-year schools, low-income students are underrepresented. About one-third of students who get federal financial aid enroll at these types of colleges.

The population is even more skewed at private, nonprofit four-year colleges. At these institutions, about one-third of students who receive federal aid are from families making more than $110,000 a year. At these more-selective schools, there are as many students in this high-income category as those from households earning under $30,000 a year.

"This is an indication that higher education is divided into high-poverty and low-poverty colleges to a disturbing degree," writes Gillen.

Slate posted an interesting graphic today that illustrates the wide gaps in college access and completion between wealthy and poor families in the United States. About 80 percent of kids from high-income families go to college and a little more than half complete a degree, while 30 percent of low-income students pursue higher education and less than 10 percent finish. The situation is improving for poor students, Slate noted, but the completion rates are increasing for high-income famlies at a faster pace

This information was from a paper on growing inequities and their impacts in the United States by Lane Kenworthy and Timothy Smeeding and based on data in the 2011 National Longitudinal Youth Survey.

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