Federal Enrollment Data Show Promise, Contain Limitations

February 28, 2018

By Jack Porter, Advocacy Associate 

Last week, the U.S. Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) released its annual Digest of Education Statistics report. The 900-plus-page document offers an overview of education trends and outcomes at all levels, and in most cases is aggregated across demographic lines.

One component of the report offers a positive sign concerning the level of college enrollment among low-income students. In 2015 and 2016, low-income students appear to outpace their middle-income peers on this front, most notably by seven percentage points in 2015.

After sparking some noteworthy headlines, such a remarkable and seemingly trend-curbing data point deserves a closer look, as well as a comprehensive contextualization of what this could mean regarding educational equity.

First, the dataset underlying the enrollment statistics, the Current Population Survey, has clear shortcomings. These statistics illustrate postsecondary enrollment by parental income, but only include students who are counted in their parents’ household. This means the dataset comprises students either living at home or temporarily living away from home (e.g., at college), skewing the sample toward those most likely to be enrolled in a postsecondary institution and inflating the enrollment rate estimates.

The second pitfall of the IES report is that we cannot conclude with certainty that there is in fact higher low-income enrollment than middle-income enrollment. This is due to the overlap of the confidence intervals (the range of true values that are plausible for a given estimate) around the enrollment rate estimates for low- and middle-income students. This overlap means the estimates may not be statistically distinguishable from each other.

This is not to say that the new data should not be viewed as a step in the right direction. In fact, it is noteworthy that low-income students are not consistently enrolling at a significantly lower rate than their middle-income peers in this dataset the way they were in past years.

Percentage of Recent High School Completers
Enrolled in College by Income Level

 Year Total  Low-Income  Middle-Income  High-Income 
 1975  50.7  31.2  46.2 64.5 
 1976  48.8  39.1  40.5 63.0
 1998  65.6  46.4  64.7 77.5
 1999  62.9  47.6  60.2 75.4 
 2015  69.2  69.2  62.2 83.2
 2016  69.8  65.4  65.0 82.5 

However, if we are to be intellectually honest, enrollment rates must be viewed as a preliminary measure concerning educational equity, and where low-income students enroll must be front and center in this conversation as well.

While the path to enrollment in higher education is undoubtedly lined with hurdles for low-income students to clear in the first place, it is equally vital for there to be a concentration of resources aimed at ensuring that low-income students have the support to complete higher education. Unfortunately, the IES report does not illustrate completion rates across income levels, and research has historically depicted significant gaps across these lines.

We know that two-year institutions serve a disproportionately large percentage of low-income students, and that those who complete an associate’s degree earn less on average than those who complete a bachelor’s degree. Thus, a broad conversation around enrollment without consideration as to where low-income students are enrolling omits key metrics in equity considerations.

Ultimately, it would be unfair and dishonest to cling to these new numbers and declare that enrollment inequities have been solved. Rather, we must understand exactly what these numbers tell us (and what they do not), and continue place an emphasis on completion as well as enrollment.

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