During the last 45 years, the college-completion gap between the richest and poorest young Americans rose from a 34-percentage-point difference to 46 percentage points.
Since 1970, the percentage of dependent students coming from the poorest families, those making roughly $34,000 or less a year, who earn a bachelor's degree inched up from six percent to nine percent.
In comparison, the college-completion rate for students growing up in the richest households jumped from 44 percent to 77 percent.
The gloomy statistics were released at a time when a great deal of focus is on increasing access to higher education among low-income Americans. A debate is rightfully underway about whether the primary focus should be to encourage even more young Americans to enter college or to devote more resources to help the most vulnerable students actually obtain college degrees.
The gap in college-completion rates has also exasperated the nation's income inequality because obtaining a college degree is a prerequisite for most good-paying jobs.
The researchers suggested a variety of reasons for why the vast majority of lower-income students never earn a bachelor's degree: These at-risk students don't receive the support they need in school, they're more likely to be unprepared for the rigors of college courses, they can have limited transportation and they're more likely to have to work to put themselves through school.
Low-income students are also more likely to attend community colleges and for-profit schools, which in general have poor track records on college completion. More affluent students favor four-year state schools and nonprofit private colleges and universities.
Cost, the report points out, is also huge stumbling block for these students. The Pell Grant, which maxes out at $5,730, covers just a fraction of the college costs that it did many years ago.
The millions of students who don't attend college or ultimately drop out also pay a huge financial price. The earnings gap is huge between students with college degrees and those without.
The federal jobs report for January, for instance, showed an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent for workers with at least a bachelor's degree, while the overall unemployment rate was 5.7 percent. Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, now predicts the country is headed toward full employment for workers with bachelor's degrees.
People without a bachelor's degree also face credential creep. A study conducted last fall by employment firm Burning Glass Technologies said companies are more likely to replace departing workers who do not have bachelor's degrees with those who do.