0232 GMT December 16, 2019
The percentage of students from the lowest-income families — those making $34,160 a year or less — earning a bachelor's degree has inched up just 3 points since 1970, rising from 6 to 9 percent by 2013, AP reported.
Meanwhile, college completion for students from the wealthiest families has risen dramatically, climbing from 44 to 77 percent.
"It's really quite amazing how big the differences have become between those from the highest and lowest family incomes," said Laura Perna, a University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, one of two organizations that published the study examining college costs and degree attainment.
The study comes amid renewed debate on college affordability spurred by President Barack Obama's proposal to make two years of college free.
If adopted in every state, the proposal would benefit a projected 9 million students a year. It would cost taxpayers an estimated $60 billion over 10 years — a price the Republican-controlled Congress is likely to be hesitant to embrace.
The widening gap in college completion mirrors a growing divide in income inequality: While pay for the richest 10 percent of the nation has jumped in recent decades, salaries for most Americans have stagnated after accounting for inflation.
"If anything, the returns to education, the benefits from attaining more education, have been growing over the last 20 years," said David Zimmerman, an economics professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.
"So to the extent that the education gap is widening between students from more and less advantaged families, than the predicted gap in earnings would widen as well."
Among the report's other findings: The percentage of students from all income levels enrolling in college has increased during the last four decades. There was a 46-point gap between rich and poor in 1970, compared with a 36-point gap in 2012.