Income inequality has been increasing for the past 20 years. A substantial part of the increase in income differences can be explained by changes in the return to education. In dollar terms, 1973 college graduates earned 45 percent more than high school graduates; by 1994 they earned 65 percent more, based on real average hourly wages for college and high school graduates (Baumol and Blinder, 1997). The increasing income disparities between groups of differing educational attainment raises concern that access to postsecondary education (PSE) may not be as widespread as desired. President Clinton urged for the goal of universal college access in his 1997 State of the Union address, “We must make the thirteenth and fourteenth years of education—at least two years of college—just as universal in America by the 21st century as a high school education is today, and we must open the doors of college to all Americans.”
Using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS) and the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), this study examines access to postsecondary education by individuals in different income and test score groups. While many studies have found a statistically significant effect of income on college enrollment,1 less attention has been paid to the effect of family income after controlling for student achievement. This study specifically addresses this issue. We also explore differences in the decision of whether or not to attend PSE or in the type of PSE attended. We are interested in whether students are substituting less expensive alternatives (such as public or 2-year institutions) for high cost institutions, or whether they are not attending PSE at all. However, we do not examine selectivity of institutions attended.
Another goal of this study is to determine which factors, including high school experiences, are especially important in determining college enrollment patterns. Hossler and Maple (1993) find that information on individual background factors allows them to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which ninth-graders will go to college. The emphasis in our study is on how
See, for example, Leslie and Brinkman (1987), Savoca (1990), Schwartz (1986), and Mortenson and Wu
(1990). SECTION I. INTRODUCTION 1
early indicators, such as expectations and course-taking behavior in the eighth grade, are related to college attendance six years later.2
Last, we explore whether financial aid availability is a critical factor in determining PSE attendance. The combined effects of shifting federal support from grants to loans, and college tuition increasing at a rate faster than inflation are expected to have a large impact on enrollment patterns for low income youth. This report examines knowledge of and attitudes toward financial aid, and the relationship between such factors and PSE attendance. We also examine the effect of financial aid receipt on PSE attendance.
In summary, the main research questions addressed in this report are:
1. 2. 3. 4.
What percentage of students attend PSE, and what types of PSE do they attend? How are income and test score related to who goes to college? What factors, including high school experiences, are especially important in determining college enrollment patterns? Is financial aid availability a critical factor for determining PSE attendance?
The rest of the report proceeds as follows. Section II describes the literature on individual and institutional factors that affect PSE attendance. Section III provides an overview of the data used in this report. It describes the NELS data, the NPSAS data, samples and weights used in the study, and correction of standard errors for sampling techniques. Section IV examines who goes to college. The section highlights the main answers to the first two research questions posed above, in a univariate or...