Persistent Inequalities in College Completion, 1980-2010

Kim Voss, Michael Hout, Kristin George

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Fewer than half of America's college students complete their bachelor's degrees. To many, cost seems to be the crucial barrier. Sociologists of education have long argued, though, that inequalities start before costs matter. Entrenched “sort and sieve” processes apportion outcomes to family background. The whole system of grading, testing, and selecting some students while rejecting others makes a degree much more likely for students from higher status families-and that system was in place long before states limited appropriations and tuition skyrocketed. Analyzing longitudinal data from three cohorts of high school students, we find only small changes in the college graduation rate as of 1988, 1998, and 2010. Second, baseline socioeconomic and racial disparities in college completion were just as high in 1988 as in 2010. Third, mediation analysis shows that half of the socioeconomic disparities work through pre-college factors such as grades and curriculum choices. The other half reflect higher graduation rates at selective colleges. Fourth, the only notable change concerned community colleges; the potential disadvantage of starting at one declined after the 1980s. Our analysis affirms sociologists' focus on persistent aspects of academic sorting, not recent changes, as the root of inequality of opportunity in American higher education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)480-508
Number of pages29
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2024


  • college graduation
  • educational stratification
  • inequality
  • social class disparities
  • two-year colleges

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Persistent Inequalities in College Completion, 1980-2010'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this