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

June 09, 2010

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.