Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

A Rising Share of Undergraduates Are From Poor Families, Especially at Less Selective Colleges


The analysis of the undergraduate population is based on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). The survey has been conducted periodically by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) since 1987. It is designed to be nationally representative of undergraduates enrolled in postsecondary institutions that are eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs. The 2015-16 administration surveyed about 89,000 undergraduates at about 1,800 institutions. Data for this report were accessed through the NCES’s TrendStats online data analysis tool.

Most NPSAS administrations include students at institutions in Puerto Rico. Our analysis is limited to students at institutions in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

NPSAS provides very detailed estimates of the financial aid received by students, as well as detailed student demographic information and the institutional characteristics of the college and university. A recent profile of 2015-16 undergraduates illustrates the breadth of information provided by the NPSAS.

Beyond the undergraduate survey, NPSAS also collects student information from U.S. Department of Education databases on loan and grant programs as well as financial aid applications (the FAFSA). The student’s family income data is largely based on income as reported on financial aid applications and is more accurate than if it was based on student self-reports. In NPSAS:16 student family income is based on the 2015-16 federal financial aid application (FAFSA). If it was not available, the latest adjusted gross income from the 2014-15, 2013-14, or 2012-13 federal financial aid applications was used if the student’s dependency status from that year was the same as in 2015-16.

The racial and ethnic composition is based on the RACE variable. There were a few changes to this variable between 1996 and 2016 that affect comparability over time. In 1996, Asians and Pacific Islanders are combined into one category; they are split into separate categories in the 2016 data. Additionally, in 1996, only whites and blacks are non-Hispanic. In 2016, all racial groups include only their non-Hispanic components and Hispanics are of any race.

The admissions selectivity classification is based on the SELECTV2 variable. This classification applies only to public and private nonprofit four-year institutions. As part of a separate data collection (IPEDS), colleges and universities annually inform NCES of their number of applicants, number of students admitted, and the 25th and 75th percentiles of ACT and/or SAT scores. On this basis and some additional institutional characteristics NCES assigns the institution to one of four selectivity categories. Further details are in Appendix E of this NCES report. In this analysis, the “open admission” and “minimally selective” categories are collapsed together.

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