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Pew Research Center: A Rising Share of Undergraduates Are From Poor Families

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The FINANCIAL — The overall number of undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, with growth fueled almost exclusively by an influx of students from low-income families and students of color. But these changes are not occurring uniformly across the postsecondary landscape.

The rise of poor and minority undergraduates has been most pronounced in public two-year colleges and the least selective four-year colleges and universities, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data. There has been less change at the nation’s more selective four-year colleges and universities, where a majority of dependent undergraduates continue to be from middle- and higher-income families.

As of the 2015-16 academic year (the most recent data available), about 20 million students were enrolled in undergraduate education, up from 16.7 million in 1995-96.1 Of those enrolled in 2015-16, 47% were nonwhite and 31% were in poverty, up from 29% and 21%, respectively, 20 years earlier.2

The rising proportion of undergraduates in poverty does not mirror wider trends in society. The official poverty rate for adults age 18 to 64 (12%) was similar in 1996 and 2016, suggesting that access to college for students from lower-income backgrounds has increased since 1996.

The share of students in poverty differs considerably between dependent students – those who are younger than 24 and assumed to be receiving financial support from their family – and independent students, which includes those ages 24 and older as well as younger students assumed to be receiving little or no financial support from their parents. In 2016, 20% of dependent students were in poverty, up from 12% in 1996. Among independent students, fully 42% were in poverty in 2016, compared with 29% 20 years earlier.

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The increase in the share of dependent students who are in poverty has been most pronounced at private for-profit colleges, public two-year institutions, and minimally selective and open admission four-year colleges and universities. At more selective institutions, a growing share of dependent undergraduates are from higher-income families (incomes at least 7.5 times the poverty line). For poor independent students, the increase has been substantial across different types of postsecondary institutions.

The share of undergraduates who are racial or ethnic minorities has increased in all types of postsecondary institutions, reflecting at least in part the country’s changing demographics. But the change has been most pronounced in public two-year and minimally selective four-year colleges.

The increase in the minority share of undergraduates comes amid a relatively large increase in Hispanic enrollment. Hispanic undergraduates have more than doubled their share of enrollment at four-year colleges and universities since 1996 (from 6% to 16% in 2016). Hispanics are now the largest minority group among students at minimally selective four-year institutions (eclipsing the black share of enrollment) and are even with the black share of enrollment at moderately selective four-year institutions.

The analysis also finds that undergraduates today are more likely to borrow to pay for college expenses, with the greatest increase among middle- and higher-income students. In 2016, 39% of middle-income students took out a loan, similar to the borrowing rate of students in poverty (38%). The likelihood of borrowing is now mostly unrelated to income, marking a significant change from the past. Undergraduates are also significantly less likely to be employed while enrolled than in 1996.

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