Colleges enroll fewer low-income

Kentucky has done a remarkable job of graduating more students from high school.

But then what?

Not much if the graduates are from low-income families, according to an analysis released last month.

In 1999, 20.5 percent of Kentucky students from low-income families went to college, compared with 19.8 percent in 2007.

Disappointing as that stagnation is, Kentucky looks good compared with all but 11 states, the only ones that saw an increase in college-going among low-income residents.

Nationally, higher education is moving farther out of reach for those not raised in affluence. The low-income college-participation rate fell from 27.7 percent in 1999, the peak year, to 23.8 percent in 2007.

During that period, the gap between students from low income and higher earning families swelled by 7.7 points.

Where Kentucky looks bad is in comparison with regional competitors such as Tennessee and North Carolina. Like Kentucky, they are making significant gains in high school graduation rates, but, unlike Kentucky, are also sending more of their low-income residents to college.

The analysis by Thomas G. Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, says there's no clear definition of low-income but generally it would include the bottom quarter of earners.

He came up with a college participation rate for low-income students by calculating the ratio of dependent recipients of federal Pell Grants to the population of fourth- to ninth-graders nine years earlier who were approved for free or reduced-price school lunches.

That might miss some low-income students who go to college on academic or athletic scholarships or without Pell grants, but probably not many.

That Kentucky isn't sending more low-income kids to college bodes ill for the state's future.

But it's hardly surprising considering that tuition at Kentucky's public universities has risen faster than the national average and that last year 44,000 eligible Kentuckians were turned down for state need-based financial aid because there wasn't enough money.

With tuition rising again and the recession straining incomes, even fewer low-income Kentuckians may be able to afford college.

"In an economy that has been losing low skill jobs for a century and growing jobs that require college-level preparation these low-income students represent a vital asset for our country's future," says the analysis.

"Investing in their higher educations before they enter the workforce as adults can convert social and economic liabilities into constructive, productive and contributing social and economic assets."

If Kentucky hopes to compete, the state must find ways to keep all its citizens progressing through the education pipeline.