Indicators report shows escalating disparities for poor students, students of color

Report from The Pell Institute and PennAHEAD highlights stark differences in debt burden and benefits of higher education among ethnic groups that has significantly widened in recent years.

The burden of higher education debt has painful and long-lasting consequences for poor students and students of color, according to a report released today that has annually tracked trends and indicators in postsecondary enrollment since 2015.

African American person sitting outside on a college campus with books and a backpack.

The disparity itself is not new, but the gap is widening—and fast. For example, the most recent data show that nearly half of Black students owe more money four years after graduating than they originally borrowed, in contrast to 17% of white students. And even 10 years after attaining a bachelor’s degree, 37% of Black Americans reported a negative net worth, nearly double the average for their white peers.

“What we see, more clearly than in previous reports, is a vast divide in outcomes between families with assets and those without,” says co-author Laura Perna, vice provost for faculty and an executive director of PennAHEAD. “There is a very notable difference among ethnic groups in the growth of median wealth. That stark inequality sets the stage for years of struggle for many students who try to better their lives through higher education.”

The report—Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2022 Historical Trend Reportis released annually by The Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD) at the Penn Graduate School of Education. It found that while higher education can still provide an entrance to the middle class and financial improvement for many poor and first-generation students, it mires many in debt. Attaining long-term gains, the authors note, is much more difficult than in the past.

Key data in the report, drawn from various sources, highlight the increasing gaps associated with college include impossible costs—the well-documented rise in the cost of college hits low-income students hardest despite qualifying for Pell grants. In addition, the report cites Inequities in average amount rorrowed, the uneven growth of median wealth, and the inability for people to meet essential expenses.

Read more at Penn GSE.