Promoting Economic Mobility by Increasing Postsecondary Education

May 12, 2009

The facts are clear: a college education strongly affects whether Americans can make the climb up the income ladder. Data covering the last four decades show that adults who have degrees from two-year or four-year colleges have far higher family incomes than do adults who have only a high school degree or are high school dropouts. Further, income has grown steadily over time for those with college degrees while remaining stagnant or declining for those with a high school education or less. Previous Economic Mobility Project findings showed that adult children from poor and low-income families who earn a college degree are much more likely to move up the income ladder past peers in their own generation than are those without a degree. Adult children from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, for example, are four times as likely to reach the top fifth if they achieve a four-year college degree.

Despite the evidence that poor and low-income children benefit enormously when they attain a college education, they are nonetheless less likely to enroll in either two- or four-year colleges, and less likely to complete a degree once they have enrolled. Although the difference in degree completion can be attributed, in part, to lower levels of academic preparation, even those poor and low-income children with the same level of preparation are significantly less likely to attend and complete college than are their higher-income peers. A body of evidence suggests this is partly because the costs of college attendance put greater pressure on the limited resources of poor families, and partly because these students lack information about colleges and student aid as well as social and scholarly supports while attending college.

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