What is Middle Income?
In the last few months there have been many references to financial aid for students from "middle income" families where the income ranges from $100,000 to $200,000. I find these references to be abuses of the English language and the facts. Students in this family income range are wealthy or affluent or rich--but they certainly are not "middle income".
Here are the facts. For decades I have calculated and reported on the family income distributions of high school graduates in the 18 to 24 age range using data from Table 14 of the Census Bureau's annual report on school enrollments:
The most recent data for 2005 may be divided into four quartiles of family income as follows:
Bottom quartile: $0 to $36,539
Second quartile: $36,540 to $64,108
Third quartile: $64,109 to $98,433
Top quartile: $98,434 and up
These are for 18 to 24 year old high school graduates who are dependent family members. Exactly one-quarter of the total fall into each family income quartile range. If one were to include the family incomes of 18 to 24 year old high school dropouts these family income ranges would be lower.
Using the 2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study we have also calculated family income quartile ranges for all 18 to 24 year olds:
Bottom quartile: $0 to $34,288
Second quartile: $34,289 to $62,240
Third quartile: $62,241 to $95,006
Top quartile: $95,007 and over
There are other data sets that confirm these ranges. Most policy analysts refer to middle income broadly as the two middle quartiles, from about $35,000 to $95,000, then might say something about lower middle income and upper middle income. None that I have ever heard or read would consider students from families with incomes of more than $100,000 to be "middle income."
By any conceivable measure students from families with incomes of more than $100,000 are doing extraordinarily well in the education pipeline. They have the highest high school graduation rates (92.5%), college continuation rates for those that graduate from high school (87.0%), and bachelor's degree completion rate by age 24 for those who start college (90.1%). As a result they earn bachelor's degrees by age 24 at far higher rates (72.6%) than do students born into lower income families (27.9% in the third quartile, 16.6% in the second quartile, 12.3% in the bottom quartile).
I realize that many high school and collegiate members of NACAC work almost entirely with students from the top quartile of family income, over $100,000 per year. While these are undoubtedly talented students, they are also students with inherited privileges and educational opportunities not available to students born into families with fewer resources. They have little or no measurable financial need to pay for college. However students from the bottom three quartiles of family income faced $31.9 billion in unmet financial need, or $56.4 billion in work/loan burden in 2004 based on our calculations from the NPSAS study. To fuss over financial aid awards for these rich kids while the staggering gaps in aid for those from lower income families who need it keep growing should be a professional embarrassment to the NACAC organization and its members.