New Pell Institute Report Shows Decline in the Global Position of the United States in Bachelor’s Attainment, Increasing Inequality of College Opportunity at Home

This comprehensive report provides a 50-year historical trend analysis, shedding light on the state of equity in higher education and offering insights to policymakers, educators, and the public on how to improve educational opportunities and outcomes.

WASHINGTON, D.C.  Higher education—paradoxically—plays a dual and contradictory role, both as a method for increasing mobility and a perpetrator of stratification and inequality, according to the latest edition of the biennial report tracking trends in postsecondary enrollment.

The 2024 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States report reveals alarming trends indicating increasing inequity of opportunity in higher education, particularly for low-income students. “The alarms are sounding for the U.S., but it’s not too late to ensure each person’s right to higher education within a paradigm of inclusive excellence,” said Terry Vaughan III, Ph.D., vice president of research and the director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education (Pell Institute) at the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and one of the report’s authors.

This paradox of higher education underscores the complex interplay between higher education access, socioeconomic status, and social mobility. On one hand, higher education has long been hailed as the pathway to upward social mobility, providing individuals from diverse backgrounds with the opportunity to improve their economic prospects and achieve a better quality of life. However, higher education frequently serves to validate success for those who are already successful and to uphold the existing social order.

Margaret Cahalan, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Pell Institute and co-founder of the report series, stressed the need for a new paradigm in higher education: “We envision a shift whereby higher education operates as a non-zero-sum game, where the advancement of one individual, gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic group, state, or country does not diminish opportunities for others within the community.”

The report indicates that in 2022, an estimated 79 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds from the highest family income quartile enrolled in postsecondary education, compared with just 44 percent from the lowest income quartile. Historical data suggests that higher levels of educational attainment are associated with higher incomes and greater job opportunities.

However, the report reveals that higher education can exacerbate existing social stratification and inequality. Disparities in access to quality education, financial resources, and support services often result in unequal educational outcomes along socioeconomic lines.

Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to attend “most” or “highly” competitive institutions, while those from lower-income families tend to enroll in less selective institutions. This stratification is further compounded by differences in financial aid availability and college costs, which disproportionately burden low-income students with unmet financial needs.

The new report also highlights disparities in degree completion rates based on socioeconomic status, with first-generation and low-income students facing significant barriers to persistence and graduation. Despite aspirations for higher education, the reality is that many of these students are unable to attain their educational goals within a reasonable timeframe.

Among dependent students who first enrolled in 2011-12, six-year bachelor’s degree completion rates by 2017 were 45 percentage points lower for both low-income and first-generation students compared to their higher-income counterparts.

COE President Kimberly Jones emphasized the need for collective action: “As we approach the completion of the first quarter of the 21st century, the United States is at a crossroads regarding higher education. The statistics reported by the Pell Institute continue to show increasing inequity of opportunity, emphasizing the critical need for collaborative solutions.”

Addressing the paradox of higher education requires a multifaceted approach that addresses systemic barriers to access and success, while also promoting equity and inclusion throughout the educational pipeline. The report highlights several key findings, including:

  • Disparities in postsecondary attainment rates among U.S. states are increasing with rates in the highest attainment states being double those of the lowest states, leading to increasing economic and geo-political divides in the country.
  • The decline in public funding and specifically Pell Grant funding relative to college costs (covering only 25 percent of costs in 2022) has led to almost unsurmountable barriers to higher education and a new form of loan indenture for low-income students.
  • The decline in the global position of the United States in bachelor’s attainment, falling from 2nd to 18th among OECD countries in just 20 years.
  • The Federal TRIO Programs continue to play a critical role in increasing college entrance, persistence, completion, and graduate school enrollment among low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities.

Vaughan emphasized the importance of challenging the persistent presence of stratification within higher education and its effect on society by adopting a comprehensive framework that addresses systemic barriers to higher education access and success. He stated, “Unpacking the paradox of higher education will require us to embrace the optimism and hope that inspires inclusive excellence.”

The report also contains a wealth of information on how the 50 states and Washington, D.C. differ in the cost of postsecondary education available, percentage of students approved for free or reduced-price lunch, wealth inequality, percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree, and other data of interest.

To access the full report, visit

About The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education

The Pell Institute conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to encourage policymakers, educators, and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation college students and students with disabilities. It is the research arm of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit organization established in 1981 that is dedicated to furthering the expansion of college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students, and students with disabilities.

About the Council for Opportunity in Education

The Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) is a nonprofit organization, established in 1981, dedicated to furthering the expansion of college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students, and students with disabilities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., the Pacific Islands, and Puerto Rico. Its membership includes more than 1,000 colleges and agencies. Through its numerous membership services, the Council works in conjunction with colleges, universities, and agencies to help low-income students enter college and graduate. Nearly a million low-income students and students with disabilities each year receive college access and retention services through our member colleges and agencies.

Media Inquiries

For media inquiries or to arrange an interview, please contact Terrance L. Hamm, associate vice-president for communications and marketing at COE via email at [email protected] or call (202) 347-7430.

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