According to a report released by the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, the percent of students from the nation’s lowest income families rose to only 9 percent by 2013. That same percentage for wealthy families rose from 44 percent to a staggering 77 percent by 2013.
The numbers are even worse for students who are able to graduate by the age of 24.
Almost 100 percent of students from the highest income families were able to graduate by 24, but just a little more than 20 percent of students from the lowest income families managed to reach that same accomplishment.
These statistics are particularly meaningful for African-American students, many of whom are from struggling, low-income families.
Researchers considered the lowest income families to be those making $34,160 or less a year and the richest families were those who made at least $108,650 a year.
The study’s results are particularly troubling considering the nation’s current landscape for job and career opportunities. In such a highly competitive market, it has become more difficult than ever to obtain a decent paying job without a bachelor’s degree, which ultimately sends low-income families into a bleak cycle of financial struggles.
Students from low-income backgrounds struggle to obtain degrees for a variety of different factors and therefore are unable to obtain the types of jobs that could help them climb out of poverty.
“It’s really quite amazing how big the difference has become between those from the highest and lower family incomes,” said Laura Perna, a University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, according to the Associated Press.
While completion gaps are growing at a fast pace, the percentage of students entering college has seen an increase overall. This suggests that while more students are making it to college, low-income students are struggling to complete this academic journey.
According to Perna, a lot of different factors are contributing to this trend.
Those factors include “access to the information and support needed to enter college and graduate; college readiness; and the availability of higher education that meets people’s needs, particularly for students who might have children, limited access to transportation and full-time jobs,” the Associated Press reported.
Perna also referred to a troubling trend dealing with the types of schools each student typically attends.
Poor families are overrepresented in public two-year institutions, but students from richer backgrounds are more likely to attend doctoral-granting institutions.
Public two-year institutions have always had poor graduation rates, especially when compared to larger doctoral-granting institutions.
This is the same argument that many people posed as a rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s plan to offer two free years of community college to students who worked hard enough to maintain a decent GPA. There are concerns that getting students into such schools will not actually boost the completion rate, nor will it improve their chances in a highly competitive job market.
As for federal programs like the Pell Grant, many experts say the government simply doesn’t provide as much financial aid as it used to and that’s forcing families to have to take on more of the financial burdens of sending a child to college.
“We sometimes think that low-income students are taken care of because of the federal program,” said Margaret Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, according to the Associated Press. “But you can see it covers so much less than it was first established.”
Forcing more financial responsibility on families is also a key factor that’s driving the widening college completion gap now that a student’s chances at graduating are becoming more and more dependent on their family’s income.
“Students only have so many resources they can use to pay the costs,” Perna added.
Kramer worked retail and plumbing jobs after graduating from high school because he and his family couldn’t afford to send him to college.
He saved up while working these jobs and was eventually able to attend a community college while keeping a full time job.
With the help of some student loans he obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.
While he managed to pull off a remarkable feat, Kramer said it certainly opened his eyes to the nation’s hypocrisy.
“We’re a country that says everybody should be getting higher education, and nowadays, to get any decent job, you need a bachelor’s degree,” Kramer told the Associated Press.
Despite that need for a bachelor’s degree, the nation’s current policies and overall economic landscape is leaving low-income students trapped in a “continuous cycle” of poverty.
For those students, like Kramer, who are willing to do whatever it takes to earn their education, it usually means giving up basic necessities in life like healthy, fulfilling meals and certain housing needs.