Despite billions of dollars funding programs to support low-income students, fewer are enrolling in college, according to a report from the American Council on Education (ACE).
In 2013, 66% of all high school graduates went directly to college, about 2.5% fewer than in 2008. Yet over the same time period, that rate fell from 55.9% to 45.5% for the students in the lowest income bracket.
The retention gap: Social 'class trumps ability
Meanwhile, high school graduation rates rose substantially and federal grant aid for low-income students doubled to $33 billion.
"What we've done here is simply identify a deeply troubling, counter-intuitive finding, and I think we need to do some more work to get a better handle on why this is taking place," says report co-author Terry Hartle.
It's possible a recovering job market, questions about the ROI of college, stories of student-loan debt, and rising tuition led students to enter the workforce instead of pursuing higher education, experts say.
And the falling rates are troubling.
"All of the evidence that we look at suggests that people who do not complete some level of postsecondary education are going to be significantly disadvantaged throughout their life, both economically and socially," says Dewayne Matthews, Lumina Foundation's VP for strategy development.
Study: Bachelor's degree gap furthers the income gap
But Julie Ajinkya, director of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, says that investments in support programs are working and it just takes time for the data to catch up.
"The more that we actually divert and invest resources towards these successful interventions, it's just a matter of time before we start to see payback," she says, warning that without the investments the numbers may have been even worse (Scott, MarketPlace, 11/24; Korn, "Real Time Economics," Wall Street Journal, 11/25).
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