Systemic barriers to college for low-income and nontraditional students

Last week, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD) released “Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report.”

Two masked adult students in back of classroom discussing test results.

The statistics in the Indicators report reveal that nontraditional students have many risk factors and financial barriers to navigate to successfully complete their educational goals. Statistics on nontraditional students include a large number of college success risk factors, with 80% percent of independent students enrolled part-time; 43% have dependent children, and 28% are single parents, while 41% work full time and 54% have delayed enrollment. 

The report also finds that most independent students with dependents are Pell recipients, most are enrolled in less than 4-year institutions, and most are enrolled in less resourced Institutions. For students who do graduate, high debt is incurred. 

“We have seen so many proposals for free college and debt relief in the past year, even amidst a pandemic, because the painfully high cost of a degree is stifling another generation of young people and continuing to shut out minority and low-income Americans. These data show why we need change,” says Laura Perna, vice provost for faculty and co-founder of the Equity Indicators project.

Once known for wide accessibility to and excellence within its higher education system, the U.S. now has an educational system that sorts students in ways that have profound implications for later life chances. This sorting system of higher education may be fostering the societal inequality it is designed to mitigate.

Read more at Penn GSE.