In a recent study of changing inequality between children from high- and low-income families in college entry, persistence, and graduation, Bailey and Dynarski (2011), using nearly seventy years of data, find rates of college completion increased by only four percentage points for low-income cohorts born around 1980 relative to cohorts born in the early 1960s, but by 18 percentage points for corresponding cohorts who grew up in high-income families. This finding is depicted in the following figure.
“Among men, inequality in educational attainment increased slightly since the early 1980s.
Among women, inequality in educational attainment has risen sharply, driven by increases in the education of the daughters of high-income parents.
Sex differences in educational attainment, which were small or nonexistent thirty years ago, are now substantial, with women outpacing men in every demographic group.
The female advantage in educational attainment is largest in the top quartile of the income distribution.”
From a policy perspective designed to remedy inequality in postsecondary attainment, Bailey and Dynarski point to the key role high school graduation plays in higher education outcomes.
“Differences in high school completion between children from low-income families and those from high-income families explain half of the gap in college entry. However, among those who enter college, children from low-income families are much less likely to get a degree. Inequality in college persistence, therefore, produces inequality in college completion, even if college-entry rates were equal (which they are not).
Bailey, Martha J. and Dynarski, Susan M. (2011). Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 17633. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17633