The Poor and the Rich: A Look at Economic Stratification and Academic Performance Among Undergraduate Students in the United States


A number of national studies point to a trend in which highly selective and elite private and public universities are becoming less accessible to lower-income students. At the same time there have been surprisingly few studies of the actual characteristics and academic experiences of low-income students or comparisons of their undergraduate experience with those of more wealthy students. This paper explores the divide between poor and rich students, first comparing a group of selective US institutions and their number and percentage of Pell Grant recipients and then, using institutional data and results from the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES), presenting an analysis of the high percentage of low-income undergraduate students within the University of California system — who they are, their academic performance and quality of their undergraduate experience. Among our conclusions: The University of California has a strikingly higher number of low-income students when compared to a sample group of twenty-four other selective public and private universities and colleges, including the Ivy Leagues and a sub-group of other California institutions such as Stanford and the University of Southern California. Indeed, the UC campuses of Berkeley, Davis, and UCLA each have more Pell Grant students than all of the eight Ivy League institutions combined. However, one out of three Pell Grant recipients at UC have at least one parent with a four-year college degree, calling into question the assumption that “low-income” and “first-generation” are interchangeable groups of students. Low-income students, and in particular Pell Grant recipients, at UC have only slightly lower GPAs than their more wealthy counterparts in both math, science and engineering, and in humanities and social science fields. Contrary to some previous research, we find that low-income students have generally the same academic and social satisfaction levels; and are similar in their sense of belonging within their campus communities. However, there are some intriguing results across UC campuses, with low-income students somewhat less satisfied at those campuses where there are more affluent student bodies and where lower-income students have a smaller presence.

Publication date: 
October 1, 2008
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
The Poor and the Rich: A Look at Economic Stratification and Academic Performance Among Undergraduate Students in the United States by John Aubrey Douglass and Gregg Thomson. CSHE.15.2008 (October 2008)