According to a longitudinal study from the National Center for Education Statistics, high-achieving students from low-income families are as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree as students from affluent families with below average scores.

Did you catch that?

The study follows a group of 2002 high school sophomores to learn about patterns of educational progress, degree completion, and aspirations. The study shows a dramatic difference in attainment by a student’s socioeconomic status (SES), which considers the income, education level, and occupation of parents:


Source: NCES

Sixty percent of high SES students have a bachelor’s degree at the end of the study period, while only 14 percent of low SES students do.

This class disparity in educational attainment isn’t surprising, and it is likely the result of many factors, including the growing achievement gap by income level. But this study also lets us see the different outcomes for students of the same achievement levels:


Source: NCES

Only forty-one percent of high-achieving low SES students get a bachelor’s degree—the same percentage as high SES students with scores in the second lowest quartile. Degree completion is even more unequal than college enrollment. There’s even a racial attainment gap for students in the middle and upper socio-economic group:

Percentage of students who completed a bachelor’s or higher degree by 2012           
  White Black Hispanic
Low SES 14.4 12.6 12.6
Middle SES 32.9 18.5 18.8
High SES 63.2 42.5 44.6

Source: NCES

This disparity is consistent with data on the racial wealth gap, which persists across income and educational levels, and directly impacts postsecondary options. (Philip N. Cohen notes the decrease in educational aspirations of students between sophomore and senior year of high school, particularly for low SES students: “That’s a big crushing of expectations that happened in the formative years at the end of high school.”)

These dramatic differences in degree completion are a problem for economic mobility in the South, because as we’ve said before, educational attainment remains a key determinant of who is employed and who is not, and who earns a good living and who does not across the region. A young person’s chances of moving up the economic ladder go up if they have a college degree: 47 percent of children born in the bottom quintile who don’t get a degree stay in the lowest quintile as an adult, while only 10 percent of children born in the lowest income quintile who graduate from college remain in that quintile as adults. Even with a college degree, almost 40 percent of those who start in the lowest quintile move up just one quintile, meaning a college degree often doesn’t put low-income young people on solid economic ground. (The same can be said for young black college graduates: in 2013, the unemployment rate for college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 was 5.6 percent. For black college graduates in that same age range, the rate was 12.4 percent.)

While improving educational attainment for low-income Southerners alone won’t solve our economic mobility issues, it is unquestionably a vital step for the future of our region. Unfortunately, Southern states are decreasing per-pupil spending for K-12 and higher education, and in many places, school quality is increasingly varied and tied to new types of segregation. It’s time for the South to assess how our education systems sort and sift young people unfairly, and to design an infrastructure of opportunity that connects young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity regardless of their economic situation at birth.