Mar 13, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Since the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) began tracking college enrollment patterns for high school graduates, a troubling trend has been clear: Low-income students have trailed their middle-income peers in terms of college enrollments. The good news? According to the most recent release of NCES data, the numbers have not only changed, but low-income students are now enrolling in college at higher rates than their middle-class cohorts. Here’s a closer look at the data, along with what it means for higher education.

Closing the Gap

While the average college enrollment rate for high school graduates is 70 percent, the figures look different when broken down socioeconomically. While wealthy students still came out ahead with 83 percent of students in the top quintile of the income distribution enrolling in either two-year or four-year colleges, the picture looked very different across the middle and bottom quintiles, which saw college enrollment rates of 64 percent and 67 percent, respectively. In other words, asserts Forbes, “While the difference is still within the margin of error, it marks an undeniable reversal of the historical norm.”

At the same time, the gap is also closing between low-income and wealthier students. Today, there’s an enrollment gap of 16 percentage points compared to 36 percentage points 30 years ago.

Looking to the Future

While the landscape is changing, the playing field remains far from level. For starters, there remains a significant divide between two-year and four-year enrollments with a far greater proportion of high-income students enrolling in four-year schools.

Furthermore, a divide also remains when you look at the percentage of recent graduates who are neither enrolled in college nor employed immediately following graduation: 6 percent for wealthy students compared to 19 percent for low-income students.

One last thing to keep in mind? Cautions Forbes, “As low-income students catch up to and even surpass their wealthier peers in college enrollment, it’s worth remembering that enrollment is only half the equation. For their education to be worthwhile, students must actually complete their college degrees—which only 57 percent do within six years. While the 'college enrollment gap' between rich and poor has closed in recent years, whether it pays off remains to be seen.”

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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