Addressing the Degree-Attainment Gap

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Today’s young people (aged 18-24) are being raised in a ‘college for all’ ethos and are enrolling in college in unprecedented numbers.1 Despite increasing enrollment from across the socioeconomic distribution, longstanding socioeconomic disparities in completing postsecondary degrees linger.2 In fact, recent studies have suggested that socioeconomic disparities in degree attainment are even wider than the more widely known racial/ethnic disparities in degree attainment.3

Demographic projections suggest that lower-socioeconomic status (SES) youth will comprise a significant portion of the increase in the college student population in the near future.4 However, increases in enrollment of these students have not yielded increases in their educational attainment. Lower-SES youth are still more likely to leave college before finishing their degree5 and less likely to return to college after dropping out6 than their more affluent peers. Stated another way, many low-SES young people “enter the race” that is college, yet few pass through many checkpoints along the way to the finish line—and fewer yet cross the finish line, degree in hand.7

The Obama administration aims for the U.S. to once again lead the world in the educational attainment of its population by 2020. One way to make meaningful progress toward this goal would be to increase the degree attainment of lower-SES young people. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education similarly concluded that “If all Americans attained bachelor’s degrees by age 24 at the same rate as individuals from the top half of the income distribution (i.e., 58.8%), the United States would currently have the highest share of bachelor’s degree recipients in the world.”8

Financial Aid and Academic Preparation: Necessary, But Not Sufficient

The 2020 goal is a notable one, but one that has proved difficult to reach. One attempt at solving this problem has been the commitment of significant financial resources. For example, in 2009-10 alone the federal government invested $29.2 billion in the Federal Pell Grant program and $12.0 billion in other grants designed to reduce the financial barriers to college attendance and persistence for undergraduate students.9 The federal government, state governments, colleges and universities, foundations, and nonprofit organizations also annually invest substantial resources in a plethora of outreach and intervention programs designed to promote college enrollment and persistence for low-SES students.10 Although these investments have certainly contributed to reducing socioeconomic disparities (it may be that degree attainment among lower-SES youth would be even lower, absent these financial resources), they have not eliminated them or “closed the gap” to a significant degree.

Another attempt at addressing this problem has been to work toward increasing the rigor of academic preparation for lower-SES youth to the levels of their more advantaged peers. Educational reform and policy-related efforts like Algebra-for-All and the more recent Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative were designed, in part, to level the playing field and ensure that all students have rigorous learning experiences that lead to college and career readiness. Ultimately, however, academic qualifications only explain one-third of educational attainment disparities between low- and high-SES students (Bowen et al., 2009).11 Like the commitment of financial resources, equivalent academic preparation alone has not—and perhaps will not, in the case of the CCSS—sufficiently close socioeconomic gaps in degree attainment.

Promising Strategies

The limited impact of efforts to increase degree attainment among lower-SES youth begs the question of what is needed to help lower-SES youth realize their educational dreams and complete their education. As with many complex problems, there is likely no one “silver bullet.” However, promising ideas are emerging that may help contribute to reducing degree attainment gaps. For example:

One experiment suggested that simply having H&R Block employees help lower-SES high school seniors complete the FAFSA financial aid form had a significant impact on their subsequent rates of college enrollment.12

Another experiment showed that text-message “nudges” and a college transition counselor (often a school counselor from a local high school) appointed to address questions and provide support over the summer significantly reduced the “summer melt” phenomenon, where lower-SES students commit to a university in the spring yet fail to enroll in that institution the following fall.13

The College Board and Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby14 have increased the enrollment of high-achieving low-SES students—and the quality of institutions enrolled in—by providing targeted mailings to these students and their families. Such mailings simply offered academic and financial information regarding nearby colleges and universities.

Finally, the Gates Foundation and others are harnessing technology and social media to provide college-related information via Facebook and online games, with the goal of addressing gaps in “college knowledge” between lower-SES and more affluent students.

Despite immense challenges, these and a variety of other innovative approaches are being applied to meet a surging tide of enrollments and to close socioeconomic as well as racial/ethnic disparities in degree attainment.

This article was written with contribution from:

author lukeLuke Rapa is a third year PhD student in MSU’s Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET) program. His research interests include the study of: (1) the achievement motivation of marginalized youth; (2) socio-contextual and socio-political factors that influence students’ learning and development; (3) issues relevant to urban education; and (4) issues of diversity and equity within educational spaces. Prior to beginning his studies in educational psychology, Luke received a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree from Grand Valley State University.

  1. National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). Condition of education 2009. Washington, DC: GPO.
  2. Baum, S., Ma, J., and Payea, K. 2010. Education pays 2010. Washington, DC:  The College Board.  Retrieved August 22, 2011 from
  3. Bowen, W.G., Chingos, M.M. & McPherson, M.S. (2009). Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Goldrick-Rab, S., Carter, D.F. & Wagner, R.W. (2007). What higher education has to say about the transition to college. Teacher’s College Record, 109(10), 2444-2481.
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  9. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. (May 2011). Developing 20/20 vision on the 2020 degree attainment goal: The threat of income-based inequality in education (p.2). Washington, DC.
  10. College Board (2010). Trends in Student Aid 2010. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved August 23, 2011 from
  11. Perna, L. W. (2002).  Pre-college outreach programs: Characteristics of programs serving historically underrepresented groups of students.  Journal of College Student Development, 43, 64-83.
  12. Bowen, W.G., Chingos, M.M. & McPherson, M.S. (2009). Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  13. Bettinger, E. P., Long, B. T., Oreopoulous, P., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2009). The role of simplification and information in college decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA experiment. NBER Working Paper 15361. Washington, DC.
  14. Castleman, B.L., & Page, L.C. (2013). Summer nudging: Can personalized text messages and peer mentor outreach increase college going among low-income high school graduates? Center for Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness Working Paper No. 9. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia.
  15. Hoxby, C. (2013, March). Expanding college opportunities for high-achieving, low income students. Presented at the College of Education’s Economics of Education Speaker Series, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.