Economic Snapshot | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

The college-attendance gap

A weekly presentation of downloadable charts and short analyses designed to graphically illustrate important economic issues. Updated every Wednesday.

Snapshot for July 11, 2001.

The college-attendance gap
Despite all of the press attention currently given to student test scores, most research suggests that future career success is determined not by these scores, but rather by college attendance. Not surprisingly, much of this research shows that children of more-educated parents are more likely to go to college. One explanation is that parents with higher levels of education also have higher incomes and are better able to afford college tuition for their children.

Another explanation, though, involves student expectations. Educated parents may be more likely to pressure their children to excel in school, and students from more-educated families are also more likely to attend higher-quality schools where their peers may reinforce these education expectations.

College aspiration and enrollment for 1992 high school graduates, by parental education level

The graph above shows that students from more-educated families are, indeed, more likely to have college aspirations, and they are also more likely to follow through with enrollment in a four-year institution.

It’s clear that the playing field isn’t even, and that changes in education policy are necessary at all education levels to boost student aspirations for college attendance. This problem is partially addressed by government-subsidized student loans that are given to low- and middle-income families, but these loans are obviously not enough to remedy the problem. Furthermore, despite some recent changes in state policies, there remain significant inequalities in K-12 student resources. Urban and rural areas, in particular, have trouble attracting quality teachers, and this likely has some affect on student aspirations as well.

Many non-education policies also influence college-attendance levels. Raising the minimum wage, improving health care, and providing jobs would improve the well-being of low-income families, allowing them to focus less on day-to-day needs and more on long-term decisions such as education.

This week’s Snapshot by EPI economist Doug Harris.

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