The Barriers to a College Degree

(February 2013) When it comes to education beyond high school in the United States, fewer males than females, fewer young people from low-income than high-income families, and a smaller share of blacks and Hispanics than whites and Asians tend to enroll and earn degrees (see figure).

Yet young people without more than a high school diploma face a disadvantage in the job market. Six of every 10 U.S. jobs now require a postsecondary degree or credential, up from less than 30 percent in the mid-1970s, and this demand is projected to increase.1

Persons Ages 25 to 34 With a Bachelor’s Degree, 2011

*Other includes American Indian and Alaska Native Alone, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Alone, and Two or More Races.
Note: Except for “White Alone, not Hispanic,” data for racial groups include Hispanics/Latinos.
Source: PRB analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 American Community Survey, Public Use Microdata.

To understand and address long-standing educational attainment gaps among different racial/ethnic groups (particularly for males), Congress mandated the Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).2 Their findings were consistent with previous research, reported Terris Ross, an NCES research scientist.

Poverty and poor academic preparation are significant roadblocks for students of all racial and ethnic groups. NCES analysis found that higher socioeconomic status, higher 9th-grade grade-point average, and higher 10th-grade math scores boosted the chances that high school graduates will enroll immediately in postsecondary education. But so did participating in sports, two or more extracurricular activities, and discussing school work with parents—suggesting that more-engaged students also have an advantage.

Having a college-educated parent, being in a household in the highest income quartile, and taking precalculus in high school were among the factors that increased the odds that high school graduates earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years. However, participating in school sports and clubs and meeting with a college adviser during the first year also appeared to improve the odds as well.

Working more than 30 hours per week in high school and more than 20 hours per week during college made students less likely to go directly to college after high school and earn a degree in six years, even when other factors were taken into account. Students who were enrolled full time doubled their odds of completing a degree, compared to those enrolled part-time. Studying at a for-profit institution lowered a student’s odds of earning a degree by 59 percent, compared to those who started in public institutions.

Even when males and females shared the same racial or ethnic group, income level, academic preparation, and other factors, males were less likely than females to enroll directly out of high school and attain a degree, Ross noted.

Overall, females entered college directly after high school, remained continuously enrolled, and graduated at higher rates than their male peers, with the widest gap between white males and females. Girls took a more active role in college planning: The study found that high school females were more likely than males to say they aspire to college, to meet with college representatives, and to research college requirements.

Among first-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees who started at a four-year college full time in 2004, more females than males completed degrees within six years (61 percent compared to 56 percent). This gender gap was present for all race and ethnic groups, although the gap was widest between black females and males (9 percentage points).

Financial Aid’s Role

While many researchers have examined the factors influencing low-income students’ college attendance, several recent studies have used a randomly selected sample and a control group to examine and quantify the impact of specific interventions.

A group of researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more low-income students would enroll in college if changes were made to streamline the complicated financial aid process.3

Compared to a control group that received only aid-eligibility information, they found that individuals who receive help filling out federal financial aid forms were substantially more likely to submit the aid application, to enroll in college the following fall, and to be awarded more financial aid. After three years, high school seniors whose parents received the application help were 8 percentage points more likely to have completed two years of college, increasing from 28 percent to 36 percent.

This study involved more than 23,000 individuals and targeted low- and middle-income households earning less than $45,000 annually with college-age members not enrolled in postsecondary schools. Tax professionals at H&R Block, a national tax-preparation firm, offered some of their customers help filling out the 102-question FAFSA, the federal application for financial aid that is also required for most state and college-specific aid. Using the already collected tax information, they streamlined the application process, reducing FAFSA completion time from several hours to less than 10 minutes. The control group received only financial aid information.

“Simply informing individuals about their aid eligibility does not appear to improve college access,” said Eric Bettinger, a Stanford University education professor and one of the researchers. “The real barrier is the complexity in actually filling out the form and finding the time to complete it. We were able to provide individuals with accurate aid information and submit the form for them, which greatly increased their chances of accessing higher education.”

Another random controlled experiment found that additional financial aid improved course completion among low-income college students who are least likely to graduate—those with low test scores or parents without college degrees.4 But the overall impact of the additional aid was mixed, suggesting that better targeting financial aid may be a cost-effective approach.

For the study, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers tracked low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants and enrolled full time at Wisconsin state schools. They examined the impact of a privately funded need-based program that used a lottery to award $3,500 per year grants; eligible nonrecipients made up the control group.

“Our findings suggest that making college more affordable for students who were initially unlikely to succeed in college increased their college persistence rates over the first three years of college by about 17 percentage points,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of education and sociology. She noted that the grants “really helped some students, didn’t help others, and may even have had adverse consequences for another group.”

The Value of a Postsecondary Education

The recent recession served as a “college wake-up-call for men,” according to a recent report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Men lost three times as many jobs as women during the recession that began in December 2007, and men responded by returning to school, they found. While women still outnumber men in postsecondary education, since 2006 the rate of increase in male enrollment has caught up and slightly surpassed the rate of increase in female enrollment.

The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm reports that the chances of being unemployed increase dramatically without a college degree, underscoring the importance of education beyond high school.5 Almost half of the jobs lost in the recession were recovered by May 2012 and virtually all of those jobs required some type of postsecondary education, they found.

The job market is “tough for college graduates but far worse for those without a college education,” the report’s authors concluded. In May 2012, 7 percent of new graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher remained unemployed and another 14 percent were underemployed (working in jobs beneath their skill levels). New high school graduates were in more difficult straits: Their unemployment rate was 24 percent and the share underemployed was 42 percent. Even though the earnings for college graduates declined slightly during the recession, college graduates still earned nearly twice as much as high school graduates, they found.

Paola Scommegna is a senior writer/editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2010).
  2. Terris Ross et al., Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).
  3. Eric P. Bettinger et al., “The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, no. 3 (2012): 1205-42.
  4. Sara Goldrick-Rab et al., “Need-Based Financial Aid and College Persistence: Experimental Evidence from Wisconsin,” Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Paper 1393-12 (October 2012).
  5. Anthony Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera, and Ban Cheah, The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2012).