What Can We Learn from Publicly Available Data on College Students’ Income Distribution?
In January 2017 researchers at the Equality of Opportunity Project—now called Opportunity Insights—released detailed data on the financial circumstances of undergraduate students at each of the vast majority of American colleges and universities. Covering students born between 1980 and 1991, and relying on tax records held by the Internal Revenue Service, the publicly available Opportunity Insights data provided a nuanced look at the family income distribution as well as subsequent earnings of a generation of college-goers.
The Opportunity Insights dataset joins two other important public sources of data on the socioeconomic diversity of undergraduate student populations at American colleges and universities: First, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), maintained by the US Department of Education, which collects data from institutions that participate in the federal student aid system and, among other things, reports information on the number of students who receive need-based federal Pell grants and the number of students who receive Title IV federal student aid that fall into five income categories. Second, the Common Data Set (CDS) is a voluntary data reporting template developed and maintained by The College Board, Peterson’s, and US News and World Report, which many institutions complete and post on their websites. Among other things, the CDS includes granular statistics on the number and characteristics of students receiving different types of financial aid.
In a new report, Better Than We Thought: Comparing Publicly Available Data on College Students’ Income Distribution, we compare and contrast the three datasets—IPEDS, CDS, and Opportunity Insights—for various categories of public and private four-year institutions, in the aggregate. While each of these datasets has significant limitations and ought to be interpreted with caution, we conclude that the public, annually updated data in IPEDS provides more insight into the full income distribution of incoming students at US colleges than commonly acknowledged.
Some of the report’s key findings are:
- When grouping students who do not receive federal financial aid—whose income is therefore unknown—with students in the top income category, the IPEDS income distribution is very similar to the Opportunity Insights income distribution at the aggregate level. In particular, there is no more than a 5-percentage-point difference between the two data sets in the share of students reported as having family income below $75,000, for any institutional selectivity grouping.
- Comparing IPEDS data with CDS data, we find that significant shares of students in each category of institutions have family income above $110,000 and receive need-based financial aid. For example, among the 2009 first-time, full-time entering cohort at Ivy League and other similarly selective institutions, between 40 and 58 percent of students who received need-based financial aid were U.S. citizens or permanent residents with family income above $110,000.
- Comparing the IPEDS-reported income distribution and share of students receiving Pell grants indicates that between two and seven percent of all students in the 2009 first-time, full-time entering cohort received Pell grants and had family income above $48,000. The median family income in 2008 was $61,521; this finding thus belies the commonly held belief that students receiving Pell grants are exclusively low-income, and not middle-income.
- Within each category of institutions, the income distribution, share receiving need-based aid, and share receiving Pell grants have changed little between the 2008-09 and the 2015-16 academic years.
Comparing these publicly available datasets yields some new insights about each. We invite you to comment on your own observations regarding these data, and how the findings might be used to improve higher education policy and practice.