• September 3, 2015

Many Young Adults in Poverty Have a College Degree, Report Says

Increasing proportions of low-income young adults are pursuing higher education, but some remain poor even with a postsecondary degree, according to a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

In 2008, among Americans ages 18 to 26 whose total household income was near or below the federal poverty level, 47 percent were or had been enrolled in college, compared with 42 percent in 2000. Eleven percent of them had earned a degree, a proportion roughly equivalent to that eight years ago, according to the report, which is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

The institute is a nonprofit group in Washington that conducts public-policy research to encourage access and success in higher education.

In introducing its report, the group called into question President Obama's declaration in his State of the Union address in January that "the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education." Poor students go to college academically unprepared, the report says, and, amid competing family and work obligations, they accumulate debt "that could have been avoided by pursuing a different type of degree or a credential."

None of the 11 percent of low-income graduates should remain in poverty, said Gregory S. Kienzl, director of research and evaluation at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "If you have a degree, you should no longer be poor," he said.

Across all racial and ethnic groups, greater proportions of low-income young adults were or had been enrolled in college in 2008, compared with 2000. Hispanic students showed the largest percentage-point increase, to 37 percent from 29 percent. Low-income Asian and Pacific Islander and white students enrolled at the highest rates in 2008, 62 percent and 51 percent, respectively; the greatest proportions of low-income degree holders were also from those groups.

The report, "A Portrait of Low-Income Young Adults in Education," is the first in a series financed in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The next report will focus on attendance and enrollment patterns among low-income students, Mr. Kienzl said, including that black and Hispanic women more often attend for-profit institutions than public four-year colleges.


1. iris411 - June 09, 2010 at 08:43 am

Maybe that only shows how useless higher-education has become.

2. 11132507 - June 09, 2010 at 09:15 am

Headline says "many" poor young adults have a degree, then the article describes "many" as 11%. Therefore, 89% who live in poverty do NOT have a college degree. Were that the headline, the message would be that these young people should have continued their education, that education was the key to higher earnings/better life.

Another quirk in this data is the age range - most at the low range of this age group who are living in poverty are probably living in a parent's low income household, haven't had time to finish a degree and aren't financially responsible for themselves yet. And let's acknowledge that there comes a time when personal responsibility kicks in - some of these young people probably received a very good education and have made some questionable choices afterwards.

Higher-ed bashers like the first commenter will jump all over this as proof that college is useless, but I hope the full study tells more of the story than this article does.

3. goldenrae9 - June 09, 2010 at 09:27 am

I wonder what the breakdown looks like. Are these degrees AAs or BAs? Are they from for-profit or not-for-profit institutions? Are the institutions accredited? I have a feeling the background information could be even more revealing.

4. cmmoore1 - June 09, 2010 at 09:29 am

How about those of us in middle age (yes i am forced to now confront that unspeakable age bracket) with two or more degrees who work for the college or university in a respectable position (or one would like to think it is a repsectable position) who are being held hostage in a near-poverty wage-bracket because the university President and Trustess can find monies to do all kinds of building projects and raise the salaries of those who are in the highest administraive positions yet they continue to raise tuition, raise our fees on parking permits, raise our health insurance costs and freeze our salaries for at least two years now because they don't have enough money to pay us more?

Everything is going up around here but my salary. Even an administrative assistant I had working for me at one time who had tow children had to be on food stamps because the wages here are pitiful. And this place wants to be a premier top university!!

5. tommywalker - June 09, 2010 at 10:30 am

cmmoore1 - Really? Your comments seem to support those of iris411. I'm perplexed because we seem to have totally abandoned 'trades' as an occupational option in this country. Over my career in higher ed I've seen many students come in ill prepared and flounder or fail to earn a degree; a predictable situation. If it can be shown that these students have a small chance of success in higher ed, is it wrong to advise them into a vocational career? Aren't we always going to need carpenters and mechanics? I'm fully supportive of higher education, but I believe we're admitting far too many students that we can accurately predict are going to fail. They leave us disappointed, angry, and in debt.

6. victorl - June 09, 2010 at 10:31 am

Greater numbers of poor Americans are seeking to further their education. From 2000 to 2008, the overall percentage of people near or below the poverty rate with higher education degrees fose from 42 to 47 percent. What I wish to know is, what is the increase over this period of those near or below the poverty level who sought to further their education?

For example, suppose that there was a 20% increase over this time period of people seeking to further their education and then getting degrees (as now encouraged by Obama), but only a 5% increase in those who remain in poverty. The same "5% increase" now perhaps doesn't seem quite so bad. We must measure the increase in the "credentialled" poor against those who sought to further their education during this period, and perhaps succeeded in lifting themselves out of poverty during this same time. That is the story.

7. iteachpsych - June 09, 2010 at 10:38 am

The economic dysfunction of recent years must be considered as well. It's more difficult for graduates to take their shiny new degrees and find good entry-level jobs when there is a flood of experienced job candidates vying for those positions as well.

8. arisrosner - June 09, 2010 at 10:43 am

I think that education is sometimes necessary but not sufficient to get out of poverty. Perhaps the potential jobs and professional networks that come from building social capital are what can help someone leverage the degree into a better a economic situation (meaning job/career). Also, I think "book" learning and "hands-on" learning need to work hand in hand. You can be a carpenter that knows geometry and algebra. Or, you can be a white collar worker that knows how to do basic home repair. Both can and should be expected. There has been a false dichotomy (with attendant snobbery against vocational training/manual labor) between the two types of knowledge.

9. mdl06g - June 09, 2010 at 10:55 am

victorl and arisrosner are reaching toward that politically incorrect truth... that not everyone SHOULD go to college. Not everyone is qualified. Not everyone is prepared. Not everyone would like the life they could have if they do complete college and find a white collar job. I hired an electrician who makes a livable wage, runs his own business and is genuinely happy coming to work and working his trade. Help people find out where they're going to be happy (money seldom makes a miserable job anything more than a miserable job) and watch them succeed.

10. bjackerson - June 09, 2010 at 11:33 am

Two major issues seem relevant here:
1) degree completion vs. attendance\
2) goodness of fir between the students interests & abilities and the type of post HS education or training.
Comment # 2 addresses the first issue, many young people now attend post-secondary institutions but not enough complete their porgrams. This is a very serious issue for highwer ed to grapple with.
RE: the second issue we must be honest and recognize that for some individuals a 4 year college degree is not the best fit and not a guarantee of a career. The President is quick to incliude AA and AS 2 year degrees when he promotes post-secondary education. Many young people could have much better career trajectories wiht a technical skill or other 2 year training as opposed to a 4 year liberal arts degree. We hate to admit this in higher education where I work but it is the truth.

11. new_theologian - June 09, 2010 at 01:11 pm

I agree with some of the posters here who suggest that many of the students we send to college today really do not want to be there, or do not have what it takes to succeed there, and are poorly served there for those reasons. That said, I have met a great many highly intelligent blue-collar workers whose "skills" are much more cognitively dependent than we imagine them to be. Really, have we ever bothered to think why so many of us can't fix our own cars beyond a certain level of basic maintenance, or build our own kitchen cabinets? These people are not poor, by the way. They get paid well, because what they do is something we all need, and do not, ourselves, have the ability to do.

Believe me, I do accept the idea that traditional academic "book learnin'" is really something excellent, and something that requires an exemplary quality of intelligence. But, at the same time, that does not mean that vocational careers are for the unintelligent. I faced the fact long ago that I will never be able to fix a car the way my cousins can. Not only do I not have the training, I do not have the spatial reasoning ability. I'm not "smart" enough in that way.

Now, here's the point that few observers seem to understand. It is not only a problem for the drop-out when he or she ends up poor after dropping out of college, but for everyone. Poverty costs everyone money, and so does vocational misdirection. We will all be poor if there is nobody to ply the trades that produce the goods and services that make us all feel wealthy. No one feels well-off driving around in a car with a window stuck down, or while standing, stranded, on the side of the road, or while living in a house with a plastic sheet for a window. If we all work white collar jobs, the economy will collapse and we'll all lose our white collar jobs and be poor. Let's see how long our colleges stay open then.

12. physicsprof - June 09, 2010 at 01:17 pm

Not all degrees are created equal. I would like to know how many of the degree holders living in poverty have degrees in chemical or electric engineering, physics, biology, and how many in native american studies or in rural sociology? Sorry, but "if you have a degree, you should no longer be poor" is not convincing for me.

13. akprof - June 09, 2010 at 01:25 pm

Poverty level students who pursue degrees that will lead to almost certain reasonably-paying jobs do rise out of poverty - at least that has been the experience of our low-income nursing students who went on to graduate!!

14. tgroleau - June 09, 2010 at 02:34 pm

You have to be careful about mixing up correlation and causality but several of my students have analyzed education and income data as class projects. Based on census data for the handful of counties they looked at the scatter plot shows that more education leads to both higher income and wider variability in income. In other words, census blocks with very low median education tend to have low median incomes. Census blocks with high median education tend to have a very wide range of median incomes.

If you are willing to infer a causal connection, the implication is that you're doomed to low wages without an education. With an education, your chance of higher wages increases but there's little guarantee of higher wages. Sadly, it makes education look a little bit like a lottery ticket.

Of course this analysis ignores the field that you're trained in. It simply looks at years of education.

15. afred21 - June 09, 2010 at 03:30 pm

If you aren't satisfied with the story you might want to read this one: http://bit.ly/azQiMB, it may offer what you are looking for by way of information about this report. Good news source, you should check it out!

16. slipka - June 09, 2010 at 04:45 pm

Thanks, all, for your comments. This is Sara, the reporter.

11132507: About "many," 11 percent of the 15.5 million young adults in poverty is 1.7 million.

afred21: I appreciate the link, and I have a question about the article. It says that low-income students' "success in attaining postsecondary degrees has remained flat over the past decade" and that of those who went to college, "only 11 percent actually earned an associate's or bachelor's degree in 2008." My impression of the report is that it does not measure the percentage of low-income students who earn degrees, only the percentage of low-income young adults who have degrees. So low-income students who graduate and break out of poverty are excluded.

17. commserver - June 09, 2010 at 06:10 pm

I think that getting a degree is not necessarily automatically going to lead to higher income. I am adjunct at CC that is part of large urban university system. Too often I have been told to not give students bad grades because it will reflect badly on the teacher.

I recently had the experience where I was told to change a grade after student complained. The student got a curved B on the 1st test, didn't bother taking the 2nd test and got curved B on final. I gave the student C+. The chair decided getting 2 Bs was sufficient to have a B for the course. I told the chair I had standards and the students didn't meet them. The chair decided to change the grade any way.

My point is what good is a college degree if the student doesn't learn anything? What guarantee is there of getting a good grade?

I have been told that the minimum level for getting good job is college degree. This is comparable to the HS diploma of many years ago.

18. futureprof7337 - June 09, 2010 at 07:32 pm

Though I am still poor, and in debt, I am thankful for the opportunities that higher education have given me. Some things to consider: that poor students tend to come from poor families, and socio-economics is a significant performance indicator.

That being said, many resourceful, hard-working and curious students living in poverty still manage to complete their degree. (I should know-I completed a Bachelor's and a Master's Degree and will pursue a second Master's this Fall.) The resources allocated to degree-seekers (student loans, financial aid, grants, scholarships) are still a great incentive to go to school, to explore talents and fields of industry. Otherwise some of us/these poor students might never get the opportunity to leave our/their hometown and develop a more cosmopolitan perspective .

Again, liberal educations diversify and stimulate, and this exposure to a wide range of thought informs vocational as well as white collar industries. It's about perspective and enlightenment. And so what if someone arrives at the conclusion that they don't have a knack for some things, and a natural passion for the other. That's all part of the process, isn't it?

So what if I decide that academe is too dry after all, and I decide to sell original paintings for a living, or train for a semi-pro soccer league in the Fall? Who is to say that this is not the correct path?

There is a certain genius required to think things are possible, and then all of a sudden they are. Also, there's no reason to discourage people, and there is more to life than money.

19. fizmath - June 09, 2010 at 09:41 pm

Keep shipping jobs overseas and importing replacement workers and this is what you get.

20. fruupp - June 10, 2010 at 03:19 am

Bill & Melinda Gates?! As Diane Ravitch would no doubt say, "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

21. walkerst - June 10, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I wonder how many PhDs in the humanities, who bought the big lie that post-secondary institutions would actually eventually replace retiring faculty, are among those making below poverty level incomes, eking out a living as adjuncts when they can find anything at all ... And no, that is not me, but it is a lot of my former colleagues. I left before finishing my doctorate, and went into something else, thank heavens.

22. amener - June 10, 2010 at 01:38 pm

On these fora it seems as if a few of the humanities doctoral students or phds who succeeded as career changers found somewhat related white collar work (development, academic admin etc.). I'm very impressed by those who did. I'm also more than curious to hear from those who decided, later in life (later 30s, 40s) to go into something more tradelike, such as nursing, which did NOT directly use that 'humanities' background.
Prestige and name brand are not important to me. Quality of life is. I've done wage work (by which I mean not just a little exploratory stint: I mean living years in a rented room in boarding houses, among working people also living in rented rooms, while working hourly work), and i did this AFTER obtaining my grad and undergrad degrees. I would like new skills. Especially interested to hear from serious creative types if you're out there.

23. dmaratto - June 10, 2010 at 08:07 pm

A big, big mistake we always make in the U.S.A. is thinking that poverty is personal. It usually is inter-generational; poor children inherit their parents' poverty, in much the same way as wealthy children inherit their parents' money.

If you have someone with a college degree who comes from 3-4 generations of poverty, it's asking a lot from them to have emerged from poverty completely, simply by virtue of getting a Bachelor's and getting a job.

24. ihep_communications - June 11, 2010 at 01:30 pm

We at the Institute for Higher Education Policy agree with the aforementioned comments from Chronicle readers who clearly recognize how this article's title is somewhat misleading. For example, commentator "11132507" aptly states: "Headline says 'many' poor young adults have a degree, then the article describes "many" as 11%. Therefore, 89% who live in poverty do NOT have a college degree."

Our report clearly says, "a persistent percentage of low-income young adults (roughly one in 10) holds a postsecondary degree, but has yet to leave behind the tight grasp of poverty...the representation of college graduates who fail to transcend the poverty threshold is worrisome and many questions linger."

We acknowledge that the article itself is generally accurate. And, overall, we believe the reporter did a fine job in spotlighting our research within the article (itself) on the educational experiences of low-income young adults.

However, we would be careless not to reiterate that while our higher education enterprise is not perfect, the headline overstates the size of its shortcomings and undermines the accuracy of the article in summarizing the report's findings. In short, let us not overlook the gains made by low-income young adults in attending college but recognize that many low-income young adult still face significant barriers in leaving poverty behind.

25. carolinemh - June 17, 2010 at 01:52 am

I have no doubt some in the study may "inherit poverty", but I think the study reveals some truth.
I graduted from UC Berkeley with a double major in Economics and History, cum laude, and had my thesis published. I am also fluent in French and have taught English in China. Not too shabby, and not "rural sociology."
I am currently unemployed and the best jobs I have been able to get the last few years, after hundreds of apllications and resumes, is waitress and temporary office employee.
I have lived at the poverty level for the last five years. I am $60,000 in debt.
I am not looking for high level positions, simply $30,000 a year would allow me to pay my loans, get my own apartment, and buy a used car.
This is immportant because students do enroll at universities thinking they will at least be qualified to make a little better than minimum wage, this is not the case.
It's still about social connections.

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