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The growing college degree divide

A student’s future should be determined solely by their aspirations, motivation and effort, not by their family’s income

Yet nationwide, there’s a widening gap between the aspirations of students from underrepresented communities who want to earn a college degree and the systemic, unfair barriers they face in achieving it.

While there is no single cause, contributors to this degree divide include inequitable academic prep, fragmented resources, complex college systems and resource-constrained staff. Early evidence indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened these barriers, putting the diversity of our future workforce and equitable economic mobility at continued risk.


The number of college students from underinvested communities or who are students of color has increased.1 Unfortunately, too many of them are still being left behind as they graduate college at rates far lower than their higher-income peers.2

The college degree divide bar chart

The compelling value of a college degree

When students from underinvested communities earn a bachelor’s degree, especially those who are the first in their family to attend college, they are 24% more likely to be employed and 3.5 times less likely to live in poverty when compared with peers who don’t attend college.3

Evidence shows that college graduates earn upward of $1.2 million more in their lifetime, and have higher rates of civic engagement than their high school graduate peers.5 Evidence also shows that removing barriers to college access and success can create a more diverse and richer educational experience on college campuses. Removing these barriers also contributes to building a more diverse workforce, a critical factor in fueling greater innovation, stronger communities, and more equitable economic mobility.



less likely to live in poverty3



more likely to be employed4


And earn upward of


more in their lifetime5

1 – Pew Research Center analysis of 1996 and 2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAAS), National Center for Education Statistics, “A Rising Share of Undergraduates Are From Poor Families, Especially at Less Selective Colleges.”

2 – Pell Institute, “Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2022 Historical Trend Report,” page 292.

3 – “It’s Not Just the Money: The Benefits of College Education to Individuals and to Society,” 2015.

4 – U .S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019.

5 – Lumina Foundation, “Stronger Nation Report,” 2015.

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