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Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion


  • Martha J. Bailey
  • Susan M. Dynarski


We describe changes over time in inequality in postsecondary education using nearly seventy years of data from the U.S. Census and the 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth. We find growing gaps between children from high- and low-income families in college entry, persistence, and graduation. Rates of college completion increased by only four percentage points for low-income cohorts born around 1980 relative to cohorts born in the early 1960s, but by 18 percentage points for corresponding cohorts who grew up in high-income families. Among men, inequality in educational attainment has increased slightly since the early 1980s. But among women, inequality in educational attainment has risen sharply, driven by increases in the education of the daughters of high-income parents. Sex differences in educational attainment, which were small or nonexistent thirty years ago, are now substantial, with women outpacing men in every demographic group. The female advantage in educational attainment is largest in the top quartile of the income distribution. These sex differences present a formidable challenge to standard explanations for rising inequality in educational attainment.

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  • Martha J. Bailey & Susan M. Dynarski, 2011. "Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion," NBER Working Papers 17633, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17633
    Note: CH DAE ED LS

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Rasmus Landersø & James J. Heckman, 2017. "The Scandinavian Fantasy: The Sources of Intergenerational Mobility in Denmark and the US," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 119(1), pages 178-230, January.
    2. Juan Sebastián Muñoz, 2014. "Re-estimating the Gender Gap in Colombian Academic Performance," IDB Publications (Working Papers) 4762, Inter-American Development Bank.
    3. Dettling, Lisa J. & Goodman, Sarena & Smith, Jonathan, 2015. "Every Little Bit Counts: The Impact of High-speed Internet on the Transition to College," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2015-108, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
    4. Stratton Leslie S. & Wetzel James N., 2013. "Are Students Dropping Out or Simply Dragging Out the College Experience? Persistence at the Six-Year Mark," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 13(2), pages 1121-1142, October.
    5. Sang Yoon Lee & Yongseok Shin & Donghoon Lee, 2015. "The Option Value of Human Capital: Higher Education and Wage Inequality," NBER Working Papers 21724, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Elliott, William, 2013. "Small-dollar children's savings accounts and children's college outcomes," Children and Youth Services Review, Elsevier, vol. 35(3), pages 572-585.
    7. Riphahn & Caroline Schwientek, 2015. "What drives the reversal of the gender education gap? Evidence from Germany," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 47(53), pages 5748-5775, November.
    8. Joanne Lindley & Stephen Machin, 2012. "The Quest for More and More Education: Implications for Social Mobility," Fiscal Studies, Institute for Fiscal Studies, vol. 33(2), pages 265-286, June.
    9. Katja Maria Kaufmann & Matthias Messner & Alex Solis, 2013. "Returns to Elite Higher Education in the Marriage Market: Evidence from Chile," Working Papers 489, IGIER (Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research), Bocconi University.
    10. James J. Heckman & Stefano Mosso, 2014. "The Economics of Human Development and Social Mobility," Annual Review of Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 6(1), pages 689-733, August.
    11. Christopher Rauh, 2015. "The Political Economy of Early and College Education - Can Voting Bend the Great Gatsby Curve?," 2015 Meeting Papers 82, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    12. Ellis, Jimmy R. & Gershenson, Seth, 2016. "LATE for the Meeting: Gender, Peer Advising, and College Success," IZA Discussion Papers 9956, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    13. Sarah R. Cohodes & Joshua S. Goodman, 2014. "Merit Aid, College Quality, and College Completion: Massachusetts' Adams Scholarship as an In-Kind Subsidy," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 6(4), pages 251-285, October.
    14. Gershenson, Seth & Holt, Stephen B. & Papageorge, Nicholas W., 2015. "Who Believes in Me? The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on Teacher Expectations," IZA Discussion Papers 9202, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    15. Huang, Jin, 2013. "Intergenerational transmission of educational attainment: The role of household assets," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 33(C), pages 112-123.
    16. Gershenson, Seth & Hart, Cassandra M. D. & Lindsay, Constance A. & Papageorge, Nicholas W., 2017. "The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers," IZA Discussion Papers 10630, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    17. Chu, Yu-Wei Luke & Gershenson, Seth, 2016. "High Times: The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on Student Time Use," IZA Discussion Papers 9887, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    18. Cohodes, Sarah & Goodman, Joshua, 2012. "First Degree Earns: The Impact of College Quality on College Completion Rates," Working Paper Series rwp12-033, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
    19. Lovenheim, Michael F. & Owens, Emily G., 2014. "Does federal financial aid affect college enrollment? Evidence from drug offenders and the Higher Education Act of 1998," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(C), pages 1-13.
    20. McGuigan, Martin & McNally, Sandra & Wyness, Gill, 2016. "Student awareness of costs and benefits of educational decisions: effects of an information campaign," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 68896, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    21. Kelli Bird & Benjamin L. Castleman, 2016. "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Investigating Rates and Patterns of Financial Aid Renewal Among College Freshmen," Research in Higher Education, Springer;Association for Institutional Research, vol. 57(4), pages 395-422, June.
    22. Sarena Goodman, 2013. "Learning from the test: raising selective college enrollment by providing information," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2013-69, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • I21 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Analysis of Education
    • I23 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Higher Education; Research Institutions
    • I24 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Education and Inequality
    • J1 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics
    • J24 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity

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