Fewer Low-Income Students Going to College?

The headline “Fewer Low-Income Students Going to College” has popped up on our screens more times than we can count recently. The origin is a headline on—and the opening sentence in—a Wall Street Journal blog describing a recent report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. Well, that headline is wrong. That’s not what has happened and that’s not what the report says has happened.

Why the confusion? The Advisory Committee reported that among those who had taken Algebra II, the proportion of low- and moderate-income students enrolling in four-year colleges immediately after high school was much lower in 2004 than in 1992. The percentages enrolling in two-year and other institutions were up, so the overall college enrollment rate was down only slightly. Census data reveal that the immediate enrollment rate for all high school graduates from the lowest-income quartile was 41% in 1992, 53% in 2003, 48% in 2004, 54% in 2005, and 56% in 2008. These figures include two-year colleges and other postsecondary institutions, and of course include students with lower levels of academic preparation. More recent data for the subgroup on which the Committee focuses are not available.

There is a good chance that this WSJ blog post will prove to have created a new “common wisdom” about college participation that will be cited over and over. And it’s just not true that fewer low-income students are going to college.

Of course it’s hard to write a brief blog about a detailed report on a complicated issue. And it’s even harder to write a short, accurate headline. But how about something like “Four-year colleges gain fewer qualified low-income students”? Not completely accurate, but a lot less likely to mislead. Also, of course, less likely to claim attention. But grabbing attention by misstating facts is usually thought to be the job of supermarket tabloids, not serious newspapers.





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