For those born in the early 1960s, there was little variation between men and women in terms of college completion. For those born in the early 1980s, women outperformed men at all income levels, but especially at the higher income levels.
In the seventy years since 1940, college has become an increasingly prevalent part of young Americans' lives. The rate of college entry has increased by 50 percentage points and the rate of college completion (by age 25) has quadrupled. But during the last half of this period, the period since 1975, these gains have become highly uneven among income groups.
The gaps in postsecondary education between the children of low- and high-income families have been widening, according to Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski writing in Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion (NBER Working Paper No. 17633). They find that for low-income children, college completion rates increased only 4 percentage points between the generation born in the early 1960s and the one born in the early 1980s. Among high-income children, however, the improvement was 18 percentage points.
Bailey and Dynarski focus on two cohorts: those born between 1961 and 1964, and those born between 1979 and 1982. While the latter group received more college education at all income levels, the progress was most pronounced at the top of the income range. Those born to parents at the top half of the income distribution boosted their college entry rates by some 22 percentage points between the two periods. Those at the bottom quarter of the income distribution saw only a 10 percentage-point improvement. Rates of college completion showed a similar pattern: an increase of 18 percentage points for the top income quartile as compared with only 4 percentage points for the bottom quartile.
This rising inequality was mostly a female phenomenon, and a relatively new one. For those born in the early 1960s, there was little variation between men and women in terms of college completion. For those born in the early 1980s, women outperformed men at all income levels, but especially at the higher income levels. "In college entry, persistence, and completion, women in the top-income quartile have pulled away from the rest of the population," the authors write.
This female advantage varies by ethnic group. Black women have held the advantage over black men in college graduation rates for every cohort born after 1915. For white women, the gender difference was a disadvantage for cohorts born before 1960, but has been an advantage for most of those born since then. The most dramatic widening of the gender gap has occurred among non-Hispanic whites. This gap is roughly 10 percentage points for cohorts born in the early 1980s.
Bailey and Dynarski find that differences in high school graduation rates explain roughly half of the gap in college entry between the lowest- and highest-income students in both the early and later age cohorts. The authors note that gender differences have been present, although not as marked as recently, for a long time. Even 70 years ago, a greater share of women than men graduated from high school. Cognitive ability, as measured by the Armed Forces Qualification Test, explains more of the gap in the early cohort than in the latter one.