Welcome to: The Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report

The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD) announce the release of Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report. The virtual release was held on May 19, 2021 and was accompanied by Shared Solutions Dialogues of policy options designed to address the equity issues raised by the statistics tracked in the Indicators report.

This 2021 edition is the seventh in the current series, begun in 2015. This publication brings together again in partnership the Pell Institute with the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD). Both organizations have a core mission to promote a more open, equitable, and democratic system of higher education. The Pell Institute, with its historical and ongoing ties to the federal TRIO programs, has a special mission to promote more equitable opportunity for low-income and first-generation students, and students with disabilities. These reports draw from multiple sources of existing data to provide, in one place, indicators that describe trends in equity in postsecondary enrollment, choice, and degree attainment, as well as indicators of college affordability.

Purposes of the Indicators Project. The purposes of this equity indicators project are to: 1) Report the status of higher education equity in the United States and identify changes over time in measures of equity; 2) Identify policies and practices that promote and hinder progress; and 3) Illustrate the need for increased support of policies, programs, and practices that not only improve overall attainment in higher education but also create greater equity in higher education opportunity and outcomes.

Focus on Inequities by Family Income, Socioeconomic Status (SES), and Race/Ethnicity. The first Indicators report in 2015 focused on equity in higher education based on measures of family income. Recognizing the need to also address inequity based on other interrelated demographic characteristics, reports since 2016 include selected indicators that highlight differences by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES). In these reports, SES is primarily measured by an index comprised of family income, parents’ education, and parents’ occupation developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Inclusion of State Data. The 2018 Indicators report added data describing higher education equity by U.S. state. The 2019 to 2021 Indicators reports continue the inclusion of state data. Considering indicators of equity by state is essential given the many differences across the 50 states in historical, demographic, economic, and political characteristics, as well as the characteristics of their K-12 and higher education systems.

Inclusion of Dependency Status. Indicators reports 2015 to 2019 presented a number of indicators for all students and for dependent students. In the 2020 and 2021 Indicators report, we add disaggregation by dependency status (dependent, independent without dependents, and independent with dependents) where data are available.

Inclusion of TRIO Data for the First Time. The 2021 Indicators report for the first time includes historical data on the Federal TRIO programs. Data are presented for each of the programs on numbers served, percent of eligible students served, funding levels, and characteristics of students served. Data presented also include the results of the most recent evaluations on college entrance and completion.

Methodological Issues. This Indicators report presents data as far back as comparable data warrant, often beginning with 1970. The Methodological Appendix A provides additional notes, tables, and figures that help in understanding the trend data in the body of the report. Throughout the report, we include methodological notes concerning qualifications and limitations of the data over time.

The Search for Solutions Shared Dialogues, Essays and Blog. In addition to providing longitudinal indicators of equity, the Indicators project is also intended to advance productive conversation about effective policies and practices for improving equity in higher education opportunity and outcomes. Each release event for the report is accompanied by Shared Solutions Dialogues. Throughout the year, additional Dialogues are held on-line and in-person. The Indicators reports also periodically include essays intended to connect the indicators to current policy debates. In 2018, the Indicators project launched the Improving Equity in Higher Education Search for Solutions Blog hosted by PennAHEAD intended to further advance discussion of how to create meaningful improvements in higher education equity.

Online Tools. The Excel files for each of the reports from 2016 to 2021 are available for download on this website. In 2021 we will be adding to the Indicators website additional data visualizations and infographic stories for selected Indicators. Please visit the Equity Indicators Website to access these materials.

Suggested Citation: Cahalan, Margaret W., Addison, Marisha, Brunt, Nicole, Patel, Pooja R., & Perna, Laura W. (2021). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD).

Highlights from the 2021 Report are reported below.



WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 19, 2021) — The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD) announce the release of Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report. A virtual release event will be held on May19th and will be accompanied by Shared Solutions Dialogues of policy options designed to address the equity issues raised by the statistics tracked in the Indicators report.

This year the focus will be on the statistics and the stories of nontraditional students (financially independent adult students) who delayed enrollment after high school or are returning to college. The virtual event will include an overview of the 2021 Indicators report; and will feature students’ stories, followed by breakout Shared Solutions Dialogues.

This report and release event is the seventh in a series of historical trend reports and accompanying Shared Solutions Dialogues. The goal of the Equity Indicators project is to provide a tool for stakeholders (students, scholars, advocates, policy makers and the public) to look at higher education statistics from an equity perspective, and to engage in dialogues designed to consider actionable public policies focused on attaining greater equity within higher education. The report covers historical trends as far back as the data warrant often from the 1970s, on questions of student access, institutional stratification, college cost, funding per student, student debt, college completion and attainment, international comparisons, and federal TRIO services.

The Indicators report traces statistics that are not always easy to face, but as James Baldwin famously said, “nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” As we begin to re-open following COVID-19, the 2021 Indicators Report and shared dialogues call upon us to turn our thoughts to that for which we have often turned away. It is that we have an overly competitive stratified higher education system in the United State that seems to have evolved with inequality built into its very structure. This inequity is justified as the way to foster “excellence” in both students and institutions. However, a review of the statistics in the Indicators report prompts questions as to whether this stratified system can continue to be justified and whether the inequality may be seriously limiting our higher education system’s ability to succeed in its common mission to provide a 21st century education to all enrolled students, as well as prepare students to contribute to the complexity of the current issues faced with the innovation and excellence needed. As the introduction to the 2021 report states: “Once known for wide accessibility to and excellence within its higher education system, the U.S. now has an educational system that sorts students in ways that have profound implications for later life chances.” This sorting system of higher education may be fostering the societal inequality it is designed to mitigate.

This year the Shared Dialogues focuses on students who may have been sorted out or opted out of attending college right after high school or who did not complete college and are now returning to college. Currently these non-traditional students constitute fully half (50 percent) of all undergraduate enrollment. While half of nontraditional independent students are White, students of color are overrepresented as are students who are low-income and the first in their family to attend college. Some have already exhausted their Pell Grants or were disqualified for Pell Grants by not showing sufficient academic progress (SAP) to complete a degree in 150 percent of program length. The statistics in the Indicators report reveal that nontraditional or independent students have many risk factors and financial barriers to navigate to successful completion of their educational goals. The following are some key statistics from the 2021 Indicators report about nontraditional or financially independent students.

  • Large Number of College Success Risk Factors. Eighty (80) percent of independent students are enrolled part-time; 43 percent have dependent children and 28 percent are single parents; 41 percent work full time or 35 or more hours per week; and 54 percent have delayed enrollment. [Indicators 1k(i) and 1k(vi)]
  • Most Independent Students with Dependents are Pell Recipients. About 60 percent of Independent students with dependents have Pell Grants and 41 percent without dependents have Pell Grants. Among dependent students, 39 percent have Pell Grants. [Indicator 2h(i)]
  • Most are Enrolled in Less Than 4-year Institutions. About 40 percent are enrolled in public 2-year institutions, and about 25 percent are in private for-profit or other unclassified institutions. About 30 percent of independent students with dependents and 40 percent of independent students without dependents are in 4-year institutions. [Indicator 2h(ii)]
  • Most Are Enrolled in Less Resourced Institutions with Low Spending per FTE Student. Over 80 percent of independent students with dependents and over 70 percent of independent students without dependents were in Broad Access (open or non-selective) 2-year or 4-year institutions. [Indicator 1l(i)] The average spending per FTE enrolled student in Broad Access institutions was $14,945 compared with $52,111 at Highly Selective Institutions. [Indicator 3d(ii)]
  • High Levels of Unmet Need. Independent students with dependents averaged $17,112 per year in unmet need in 2019 dollars and independent students without dependents averaged $16,658 in unmet need. These levels are almost twice (1.9 times) the average for dependent students ($9,052). [Indicator 3c(ii)]
  • Half will Not Have Earned any Degree or Certificate by 6 Years. Considering all independent beginning students including those seeking below 2-year certificates as well as those entering 2-year and 4-year programs, the Beginning Postsecondary Study (BPS) found that 9 percent will have attained a bachelor’s degree and 38 percent will have obtained some form of a degree or certificate by 6-years after first enrolling; Another 13 percent will still be enrolled, and 49 percent will not be enrolled and will not have obtained any degree or certificate. Considering first time independent students entering degree programs at 4-year or 2-year colleges (excluding those entering below 2-year certificate programs), 21 percent will have obtained a bachelor’s degree after 6 years compared with 45 percent of dependent students. [Indicators 5c(iv) and 5c(i)]
  • In Order to Graduate, High Debt Is Incurred. Among the small percentage of independent students who obtain a bachelor’s degree, the Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) study of students graduating in 2016 found that almost three-fourths (72 percent) of independent students have borrowed. When interviewed one year later, the average amount borrowed was $35,670 compared with $28,786 for dependent students. [Indicator 4e(ii)]

Some other key findings from the report are below.

  • Pell Recipients Tend to Be in Low Resourced Institutions. On average poor students attend institutions with far fewer resources than rich students. In 2018, 63 percent of Pell Grant recipients were in Broad Access colleges with average spending per FTE of $14,945 while 5 percent of Pell Grant recipients were in Highly Selective institutions with average spending of $52,111. In general, as selectivity increases, Pell receipt declines. [Indicator 3d(ii)]
  • Stratification by Family SES is High. The most recent NCES high school longitudinal study found that among 2009 9th graders who graduated from high school in 2013, those from the highest SES quintile were 8 times as likely to attend a “most” or “highly” selective 4-year college as students from the lower SES quintile (33 percent versus 4 percent). [Indicator 2f]
  • Race/Ethnicity Differences in Types of Colleges Attended. White high school completers were over 3 times more likely to attend a Most or Highly Selective 4-year institution as Blacks (5 percent vs.17 percent). [Indicator 2g]
  • Increasingly Low Levels of Pell Grant Support Relative to College Cost Over Time. The maximum Federal Pell Grant covered 68 percent of average college costs in 1975-76, but only 25 percent of average college costs in 2018-19. If it had covered two-thirds of average college costs, the maximum Federal Pell Grant would have been $16,497 rather than $6,205 in 2018-19. [Indicator 3b(ii)]
  • Black-White Debt-Gap Grows After Graduation. Ten years after completing their bachelor’s degrees, 86 percent of Blacks had borrowed for undergraduate or graduate education, compared with 71 percent of Whites. The debt gap between Blacks and Whites has risen to $28,107 in 2019 dollars, with Blacks borrowing an average of $62,824 and Whites borrowing an average of $34,717. [Indicator 4e(iv a&b]
  • Intergenerational Black-White Debt and Wealth Gaps Have Life-Long Consequences. Starkly, 10 years after being awarded their bachelor’s degree, over one third (37 percent) of Black bachelor’s graduates had negative net worth, and 29 percent indicated they had difficulty meeting essential living expenses in the previous 12 months. For White bachelor’s graduates, the comparable rates were 18 percent with negative net worth and 11 percent who reported having difficulty meeting essential monthly expenses. [Indicator 4e(vii)]
  • Completion Rates Strongly Linked to Socioeconomic Status (SES). Dependent students who enrolled in college in 2011-12 who were both low-income and the first generation in their families to attend college (first-generation) were found to have about a 21 percent chance of completing a bachelor’s degree in 6-years compared with a 66 percent chance among students who were not low-income or first-generation. [Indicator 5c(ii)]
  • Differences across U.S. States in Education Attainment Are Growing. Differences in bachelor’s degree attainment have increased substantially over the 79-year period from 1940 to 2019 (Indicator 5f(i). By 2019, 11 states had bachelor’s degree attainment rates for the population age 25 to 34 above 40 percent (Vermont, Virginia, Rhode Island, Illinois, Minnesota, Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts). Three states had bachelor’s degree attainment rates below 25 percent for that population (Nevada, New Mexico, and Mississippi). [Indicator 5f(v)]
  • TRIO Services Found to Substantially Increase Access and Completion, but TRIO reached only fraction of eligible students each year. In 2020, an estimated 808,545 students participated in one of the 7 Federal TRIO programs. National studies have shown that participation in TRIO substantially increases college entrance, persistence, completion, and graduate school enrollment among low-income, first-generation, and students with disabilities. Given current funding levels, however, TRIO reaches only about 1 percent of the eligible population for the more intensive TRIO programs and only about 3 percent for the more extensive outreach programs in any given year. [Indicators 7a(i)-d(v)]

In speaking of the report Margaret Cahalan, co-author and Director of the Pell Institute states: “The inescapable conclusion considering the statistics in the report is that the U.S. higher education system is deeply segregated by parental socio-economic status and by race and ethnicity. This has resulted in a cost and funding structure that provides almost insurmountable barriers for nontraditional, low-income and students of color to overcome. It is an overly competitive system, that ends up producing highly resourced monocultured institutions serving a small percentage of students who are highly resourced academically and financially. At the same time most low-income students with far less academic and financial resources are in poorly funded institutions and must incur large amounts of debt for their education.

Laura Perna, co-founder of the Equity Indicators project and Vice Provost of the University of Pennsylvania states: “We have seen so many proposals for free college and debt relief in the past year, even amidst a pandemic, because the painfully high cost of a degree is stifling another generation of young people and continuing to shut out minority and low-income Americans. These data show why we need change.

The Pell Institute conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to encourage policymakers, educators, and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation college students and students with disabilities. It is the research arm of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit organization established in 1981 that is dedicated to furthering the expansion of college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students, and students with disabilities.

PennAHEAD is dedicated to fostering open, equitable, and democratic societies through higher education. Located within the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania, PennAHEAD conducts original research and applies a multidisciplinary, research-based approach to address the most pressing issues regarding the societal contributions of higher education in the United States and the world.