College enrollment among low-income students has generally increased over the past several decades, according to data from the 2013 Digest of Educational Statistics (an arm of the federal Education Department). But the Great Recession and weak recovery have eroded the gains of recent years, and middle- and upper-income students remain far more likely to go to college.
In 2012, the most recent year for which NCES figures are available, 50.9% of recent low-income high school completers (a category that includes both graduates and people who completed an equivalency degree and who are ages 16 to 24) were enrolled in a 2- or 4-year college. That’s down from the record-high 58.4% in 2007, and just half a percentage point higher than the rate in 1993.
But enrollment rates among middle- and high-income students also have risen, to 64.7% and 80.7%, respectively, in 2012. (NCES defines “low income” as the bottom 20% of all family incomes, “high income” as the top 20%, and “middle income” as the 60% in between.) Looking at it another way, low-income students now are enrolled at about the same rate as middle-income students were in the mid-1980s.