Not Every Low-Income Student Who Makes it to College makes it through College

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Today, The New York Times shared the stories of Angelica, Bianca and Melissa, who despite being academically prepared for college, faced other obstacles that have hindered them from obtaining their degrees. These stories are not atypical. I’m afraid they continue to disproportionately affect students from low-income households because of what Maslow describes as “safety needs” aren’t met. I know that there is more we can do to support our students in selecting the right colleges to fit their circumstances and ensure they graduate once they get there.

Check their stories below:

GALVESTON, Tex. — Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.

Read more of For Many Poor Students, Leap to College Ends in a Hard Fall

How can we ensure that students who make it to college, make it through college?

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2 thoughts on “Not Every Low-Income Student Who Makes it to College makes it through College

  1. therolemagazine says:

    I can definitely relate to this post as I was a low-income student that did not finish college. The “need to earn money” was definitely a strain I felt as I tried to continue my education.

    As a high school student, I had excellent grades, earning a four-year scholarship for college, but by the end of my freshman year I remember the overwhelming sense of panic I felt thinking about “what do I do, where do I live the day after graduation?”. Although that panic was fueled by the fact I was a foster child with no family or home to return to, I know other low-income students who had the same worries and fears, based on their own individual background stories. A lot of low-income students I knew had parents that could barely afford to help with monthly toiletry needs, much less take care of their adult children, while they figured out how to make use of their newly acquired degrees post-graduation.

    Ultimately, I made the decision to move back to my hometown and enroll in a local community college so I could work full-time and be able to provide for myself… but eventually tuition and rent bills caused my full-time student status turn into part-time, to a class or two a semester, until finally i found my myself saying I’ll go back next year.

    I know financial concerns are only a small portion of the reason some low-income students don’t finish college; however a lot of students are engrained and trained about “the path to college”, walking hand-in-hand with teachers, counselors, and mentors they’ve built relationships with over the past four years. These youth become college students UNPREPARED for obstacles they may face when they get there(not all obstacles are academic) and DISCONNECTED to resources they know and trust to help in times of need. It’s tough enough for a lot of 17/18 year olds to navigate college their first year or so, but for a low-income student (who may have barely made it to college) they may face additional challenges that distract them from their educational success.

    I think our best solution to help youth who make it to college, get through college, is to ensure they are knowledgeable and have a clear plan how to navigate some of the uphill battles they may face before they get there, while they’re there, and even ones they may face post-graduation.

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