For a typical college student, the odds of sitting next to an affluent female in class are greater today than ever before.
University researchers recently released a study indicating that students from high-income families in the United States are graduating from college at an increasingly greater rate than students from low-income families. The study by Economics Assistant Prof. Martha Bailey and Public Policy Associate Prof. Susan Dynarski also demonstrates that the phenomenon is replicated in gender differences, as women continue to graduate at a higher rate than men.
Bailey said she and Dynarski cannot explain the differences in graduation rates across the groups, but their findings bring to light many questions regarding preparation for higher education among low-income students.
“One of the things that is an important difference is (the) gap in high-school graduation,” Bailey said. “You’re not going to do well in college if you don’t have a good education going into college.”
While the number of students graduating from college has increased among low-income families and high-income families, Bailey and Dynarski found that growth in university graduation rates from low-income families is occurring more slowly.
When comparing incoming high-income college students in the early 1980s with those in the early 2000s, Bailey and Dynarski found an 18-percentage point increase in the graduation rate. For low-income students assessed across the same time period, the increase was only 4 percentage points.
Bailey said the discrepancy between these numbers can be explained by a variety of factors, and one specific reason has not yet been identified.
“You can trace it back and back because there are differences in resources, differences in environments, all sort of things,” Bailey said.
Bailey and Dynarsaki also found that among incoming college students from high-income families in the early 2000s, more women graduated than men by 13 percent compared to 2 percent in the early 1980s.
Unlike the factor of variations in upbringings between low-income and high-income families, Bailey said the gender-related findings are difficult to explain because women have been outperforming men who were raised the same way.
“Sisters and brothers go to the same schools (and) they’re from the same families,” Bailey said. “We don’t typically think of kids from the upper end of the income distribution going to bad schools, so why is it that girls in those environments are doing so much better? This has to be something about how girls respond to the same environments differently, or boys and girls face environments differently.”
Bailey said women have higher rates of success not only in U.S. high schools, but also in high schools in other countries. The phenomenon has occurred consistently for decades, she added.
According to Bailey, the trend has brought up concerns that society is putting too much pressure on women to succeed and holding men back.
The study does not indicate how the gaps in higher education attainment between income levels and genders should be handled. Bailey said more information is needed before any changes in policy are made.
“You need to understand the sources of these differentials,” Bailey said. “The common explanations people like to give don’t really explain these trends. Before we jump to policy implications, we need to have much better answers.”