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Closing the College Participation Gap

Researchers and policymakers focus on two issues when they discuss postsecondary participation: enrollment rates and access barriers. The relationship between access and enrollment is clear–improving postsecondary access increases enrollment rates, ultimately contributing to higher degree completion rates among low-income, minority, and first-generation students.

Policies and strategies developed to increase access for underrepresented groups address individual and structural factors that impact participation. Individual factors relate to student academic preparation and the ability of families to pay for college. Structural factors refer to social, cultural, and economic constraints, which compound academic and financial challenges.

Beyond the social-moral rationales for increasing postsecondary participation, national demographic data indicate the economic value of increasing participation among youth and adults of color. In states projected to have majority-minority populations by 2025, such as Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, population trends could further constrain postsecondary resources. A strategy for increasing college participation and degree attainment for youth of color is necessary for economic prosperity in these states.

At current participation and degree completion rates, the nation will not produce enough college credentials to meet labor market demand. To reach the number of credentials needed to meet 2018 projections, adult enrollments must increase substantially. Developing adult-friendly, customizable programs of study and creating incentives to bring adults back to college are two state policy responses to these data.

Postsecondary education has the potential to strengthen and diversify the economy, cultivate a high-skill, high-wage workforce and increase democratic and social participation. As states feel the pressures of increased enrollment and declining participation, they must develop new solutions, including unprecedented support of need-based financial aid, high-quality preparation programs and P-16/20 initiatives that strengthen the link between the K-12 and postsecondary systems.


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