The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education (Pell Institute) at the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD) are pleased to announce the publication of the Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States — 2019 Historical Trend Report. We are also pleased to welcome you to the Equity Indicators Website. The Indicators Reports and this website are dedicated to the shared missions of the Pell Institute and PennAHEAD to foster a U.S. higher education system in which all citizens, regardless of family backgrounds, have the opportunity to develop their talents and capacity to fully participate in a democratic society.

This Equity Indicators Website provides access to data files used to produce each of the figures included in the 2019, 2018 and 2017 Indicators Reports. The website also provides links to the full 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 reports and access to the Shared Solutions Essays that accompany the 2015, 2016, and 2017 Reports. The website allows policymakers, educators, and the public to explore data on equality and opportunity in U.S. higher education. It is our hope that the website will also provide a forum for dialogue and co-learning of the ways in which we can together foster greater inclusiveness and equity of educational opportunity within higher education the United States.

This 2019 Indicators Report and the earlier reports compile historical statistical data from the nationally representative government statistics including the Census Bureau household studies and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)-sponsored high school and college longitudinal studies which track college entrance and completion by family income, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity. The 2018 and 2019 Indicators Reports also include data on state variation in related statistics.

A Special Focus on Understanding Equity. Each edition of the Indicators Reports has included a quote from the foreword to President Truman’s 1947 Commission on Higher Education that called attention to the dangers of a higher education system that functioned not to provide opportunity but to sort students: “If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.” The Indicators Reports are dedicated to increasing our understanding of how to address the equity issues raised by the Truman Commission Report 70 years ago.

Operationalizing Measures of Higher Education Opportunity in the United States. In these statistical reports, we operationalize the concept of “equity” in terms of several types of deviations from a distribution that would indicate “equal access to education.” For example, we observe the differences across quartiles of family income in the percentages of students entering college and receiving bachelor’s degrees. We also observe the extent to which, for example, the racial/ethnic distribution of the composition of the U.S. population differs from the racial/ethnic distribution of degree recipients.

The Indicators Reports present data as far back as comparable data warrant, often beginning with 1970. Methodological appendices provide additional relevant notes, tables, and figures.

The Search for Solutions Shared Dialogues. In addition to providing longitudinal indicators of equity, the reports are intended to advance productive conversation about effective policies and practices for improving equity in higher education opportunity and outcomes. To this end, we include periodic essays that connect the indicators to current policy debates or provide detailed examination of a relevant topic. We hope that the indicators and essays promote productive dialogue about how to create meaningful improvements in higher education equity.

The 2019 Indicators Report, the Equity Indicators Website, and the accompanying Search for Solutions Shared Dialogues are made possible with support from the Travelers Foundation, Lumina Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While we heartily acknowledge their support, any errors of omission or interpretation and the opinions expressed in the reports are the sole responsibility of the authors.

Highlights from the 2019 Report as included in the press release for the report are below.

Report: Low-Income, First-Generation Students Face Growing Barriers to U.S. Higher Education Success

Even as more students arrive on campus, wealth and race-based inequality continues to increase

WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 23, 2019) — As more students continue to enroll in college and earn degrees, inequalities in U.S. higher education opportunity are increasing, according to the Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States — 2019 Historical Trend Report. Growing stratification by family income in whether and where students go to college, and if they will graduate, sorts students in ways that profoundly affect their ability to develop their talents and earn a living wage in a global economy. The annual report is published by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education (Pell Institute) of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD).

Among this year’s key findings:

  • There are large, growing differences in college attainment rates among states. In 2015, B.A. attainment rates for 25-34 year olds ranged from 22 percent in the lowest attainment states to more than twice that — 51% — in Massachusetts. [#5f(v)]
  • In 2017, parents and students were responsible for 48 percent of higher education expenditures, up from around 33 percent from 1975 to 1981. State and local sources accounted for just 42 percent of higher education expenditures in 2017, down from 58 in 1975. [#4a(i)]
  • In 2017, estimated bachelor’s degree attainment rates by age 24 were 4.8 times higher for dependent family members in the highest income quartile than for those in the lowest income quartile (62% v. 13%). [#5a(i)]
  • Despite an increase in overall enrollment, representation of students from low-income families at the nation’s most selective institutions is low, and relatively unchanged from 20 years ago.
  • Among 9th graders in 2009 who graduated high school in 2013, those in the highest socioeconomic quintile were 8 times as likely to attend a most or highly selective college as students from the lower quintile. [#2f]
  • Nationwide, about 42 percent of college students have some amount of Pell or other federal grants while about 16 percent of students at the most selective schools have such grants. About 2/3 of students at for-profit institutions have Pell or other federal grants. [#2e]
  • In the mid 1970’s Pell Grants covered 2/3 of average college costs. By 2017 the maximum Pell covered 25 percent of average costs, down from 67 percent in 1976. [#3b(ii)]
  • In 2016 average net price of college (after grants and discounts) was 94 percent of the average family income for dependent students in the lowest income quartile; it was 14 percent of average family income for students in the highest income quartile. In 1990, average net price was 45 percent of family income for dependent students in the lowest quartile and 10 percent for the highest quartile. [#4b(ii)]
  • Students who are both low income and first generation who enter college have a 21 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree in six years. Their peers who are not low-income or first generation have a 57 percent chance. [#5c(ii)]
  • More students have been borrowing more since 1990. In the 1990’s just over half of bachelor’s degree recipients borrowed; by 2016 70 percent borrowed. The average amount for graduating seniors has risen to $30,000.
  • Black bachelor’s degree recipients have the highest borrowing rates (85 percent) and the highest average amount borrowed ($34,000). [#4c and #4d]
  • These shifts happened at a time when 37 percent of Black families and 33 percent of Hispanic families had negative wealth (owing more than they owned), compared with 16 percent of white families. [p. 29]

Since 2015, the Indicators Reports have examined trends in higher education in the U.S. through the lens of equity, compiling historical trend data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education and other public sources.

Margaret Cahalan, report co-author and director of The Pell Institute said, “For many college students the decline in Pell grants relative to college costs and growing family income inequality in the United States means a rise in food, housing, transportation, and basic needs insecurity and the need to assume large debt and to work long hours. Too many work hours and basic needs insecurity creates unsurmountable obstacles for many students and negative impacts on the realistic opportunity these students have to succeed in college.”

“Higher education is associated with countless benefits for individual participants, and for our communities, states, and nation,” said Laura Perna, report co-author and director of PennAHEAD. “But, the rising costs of attending, and the failure of student aid to meet students’ financial need, limit the possibility of realizing these benefits, especially for students from low-income families. We need new approaches if we are to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to gain access to and benefit from higher education, regardless of their personal financial resources, and to ensure that students’ post-college life options are not limited by the amount of their student loan debt.”