College cost isn't poor students' big problem

Stefanie Botelho's picture

To judge by this summer's banner policy proposals, the most important question for higher-education reform right now is giving students easier access to loans. But evidence from Canada suggests those changes won't address the greater need: Getting more kids from poor families into college, the key to moving up in an increasingly unequal society.

In research published last year, a team of American and Canadian economists compared the connection between family income and college or university attendance in the two countries. The researchers found that coming from a poor family makes you much less likely to go on to higher education in the U.S. than in Canada, even after controlling for intelligence and other factors.

The difference wasn't small. "Canadian youth with parents in the highest income category are roughly 25 percentage points more likely to attend a PS [postsecondary] institution than are youth from the lowest income category," the authors wrote. "In the U.S., this difference is more than 50 percentage points."

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