Resource Barriers to Postsecondary Educational Attainment

Document Type

Issue/Research Brief/Blog

Publication Date



economic barriers, financial education, health barriers


U.S. economic growth in recent decades has favored high-skilled, service-based occupations and industries. As a result, the demand for skilled relative to unskilled labor has grown markedly, which has been the source of much attention and concern among policymakers and researchers. Increasingly, the labor market outcomes of working-age adults are linked to their educational attainment. Earnings gains have flowed disproportionately to those with four-year college degrees. One might expect that this growth in the demand for skilled labor would be met with a substantial increase in the production of such labor, but this has not been the case.

The anemic response of collegiate attainment to persistent increases in labor market returns has occurred alongside rising inequality in postsecondary outcomes.1 Although education is often discussed as a means to reduce economic inequality and induce upward social mobility, large and growing attainment gaps among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, coupled with high labor market returns to postsecondary education, have led to concerns that the higher education system is exacerbating inequality.

My collaborators and I have examined how financial resource barriers can affect dimensions of postsecondary investment behavior beyond enrollment, such as what types of colleges students attend and whether students complete college conditional on attending. We look beyond access to the various dimensions along which financial resources can influence higher education attainment. This summary describes our recent research findings and discusses their policy implications.