Publication Date

September 2005


[Excerpt] Differences in inequality in college enrollment rates across students from families of different socioeconomic levels have only marginally narrowed since the early 1970s. Moreover, students from lower-income families are much more likely to start higher education in two-year public colleges and public four-year institutions than are their higher income counterparts. Among students who initially enter four-year institutions, six year graduation rates of students from families with incomes of less than $50,000 are substantially less than the graduation rates of students from families with incomes of more than $75,000. Finally, at a set of our nation’s most selective private colleges and universities, the proportion of students coming from families whose family incomes are in the lowest two-fifths of the distribution of family income, averaged only about 10% in recent years.

I begin in the next section by discussing some of the forces influencing public and private higher education in the United States in recent years that have worked against improving access and persistence of students from the lower tail of the family income distribution. Where students go to college may be as important as whether they go to college, as a considerable body of research shows that, other factors held constant, students who attend better-funded more-selective colleges earn higher post graduation earnings, with this effect being greatest for students who come from lower income families. Hence I also discuss why it became increasingly difficult for students from lower income families to enroll at top public and private institutions during the period.

Spurred by public attention that has been drawn to the under representation of students from lower income families, both selective public and private universities have begun to institute policies to improve their access to talented students from lower income families. The next section discusses a number of these strategies and provides preliminary estimates for some of their success to date. Efforts have also been made to enhance college preparedness of lower income high school students and to provide them with improved information about college costs, the availability of financial aid, and prerequisites needed to succeed in college; a few issues related to these efforts are discussed in the following section. Finally, I speculate about directions that future institutional and public policies might take.


Suggested Citation
Ehrenberg, R. G. (2005). Reducing inequality in higher education: Where do we go from here? (CHERI Working Paper #79). Retrieved [insert date], from Cornell University, ILR School site:

Required Publisher Statement
Published by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, Cornell University.