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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Many of My Friends Didn’t Attend College

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My high school has the lowest college-going rate in rural Cumberland County, N.J. This is the same rank the school had when I graduated in 2004 and it’s the same rank it has now. So when I read a recent post on Education Week by Sarah Sparks titled, “Why Do Academically Promising Students Not Choose College?” I was immediately reminded of my high school. Many of my capable peers did not attend college or some enrolled in less prestigious institutions for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, the reason I work in the field of education is because I’ve always believed in my peers and in students who attend schools like the ones in my hometown. I know that their life’s outcomes do not need to continue a path of poverty. With community and school supports, they can stop the cycle of poverty and put their family on the path to achieving the America Dream.

Sarah’s piece highlights a recent Harvard Study that reveals sheds light on the reality for students attending high schools like the one on my hometown. Many of them could go to college, but instead choose not to. Here’s what she had to say:

[Researchers from Harvard’s Center on Education Policy] found that, of students who showed academic potential;as judged by their cumulative high school GPAs and math and verbal SAT scores—18 percent enrolled in less-selective four-year colleges, two-year institutions or no higher education at all. Moreover, students who chose less-selective colleges were less likely to continue through to earn a diploma.

“These are people who are clearly poised for success and are not clearly moving into it,” said John Fullerton CEPR’s executive director. “That could be because some high schools are not preparing academically kids who were high performing, and so they slip back during high school, or others might not provide the support for students” such as college selection and financial aid guidance needed to plan which college to attend, he said.

“This is particularly true of kids from lower economic backgrounds. Going to a college just because it’s local or cheap may not be the best decision, because if you are more likely to drift away and drop out, that will have long-term economic consequences,” Mr. Fullerton said.

Mr. Fullerton was spot on in describing many of my peers experiences. Sure, I was bright in high school, but so were many of them. There’s no reason why some of them did not go straight from high school and into four year colleges. We sat in the same honors classes or some chose to take a less challenging route and enroll in college prep because they were not pushed to excel to their fullest potential. Their ability to achieve mirrored mine, but our life’s took us down two different paths.

My friends and I would discuss college in high school. Once a month, a few of attended Talent Search–a partnership with the local Community College that exposed us to college. We were excused from class for an hour and our Talent Search Coordinator would teach us about the application process and taking the SAT. During Spring Break, those of us who could afford it, went on a trip to college tours. For many of us, Talent Search was our ticket out of Cumberland County. I will never forget when I had the chance to go to California the first time. It was part of Talent Search’s Spring Break trip to tour University of Southern California in Los Angeles and other schools. Yet, for many, Talent Search was not enough to sway the hold their environment and family circumstances had in shaping their life’s path.

I knew, and I wholeheartedly believe they knew they were more than capable. However, it was difficult to crack their tough exterior and help them believe that attending college was their doorway to success. By the end of our four years, many of my friends and peers did not go on to college or some went to the local county college, dropped out, or re-enrolled and graduated many years later. Like Mr. Fullerton said, some of my peers didn’t have the proper guidance to navigate the application and matriculation process. If no one in your family has gone to college, and it’s not the norm for students to go to college in your hometown or high school, applying to college can be frightening. I am lucky to have a father who is a guidance counselor by profession at a school in the neighboring town who could support me in the process. My peers, although intelligent, did not have that support.

Moreover, some didn’t believe they had the financial means to go to college. Again, I had a father who knew FAFSA like the back of his hand. He could also help me apply for scholarships. I will never forget during my senior year, I would spend hours at the computer writing scholarships essays and preparing these unique scholarship packages with all of my accomplishments. During my senior year, I decided I wanted to attend the University of Maryland, and my dad informed me that since it was out-of-state, I would have to work really hard to pay for it. I ended up receiving 18 scholarships, two of which were four year and the rest were enough to pay for my entire first year of college. I was fortunate to have my dad to make a sometimes overwhelming process for a high schooler be one that was paved with love. For my peers who did not come from that family background, trying to figure out how to apply and then how to pay for college was a daunting task.

Nevertheless, a child’s family’s background or economic status should not determine the life they envision for themselves. That’s why I would take it a step beyond Mr. Fullerton’s reasons of lack of knowledge of the application process and financial aid, and also assert that tracking done in high school and the high school’s college-going culture both play a significant role in a young person’s decision to attend college or the colleges that make it on a student’s college short list.

In my high school, students were put on different tracks. Each year, we selected classes that were either on the honors, college preparatory, or general education track. Although, my high school has a low college-going rate, the number of students who were on the honors track who attended college was quite high. Since our freshman year, we were supported and guided on the track to college. My friends who attended these classes with me are now successful in various sectors. One of my friends is a journalist, another recently graduated law school and working in the legal department of a Fortune 500 company, another is a high school guidance counselor, and another is on her way to graduating with her Masters in Social Work. I wonder just how many high school students are missing out on the chance to go to college because they’re tracked in high school?

There are a lot of out-of-school factors that sway many students’ decision to attend college. Nevertheless, there is much that schools can do to put more students on the right path. I believe that if my high school really invested more students outside of the honors track in going to college from the ninth grade, and put in comprehensive supports to help more students apply and matriculate into college, the college-going rate of my high school would be much higher.

What do you think? Do you think high schools, specifically that serve students from low-income neighborhoods, do enough to push students who walk the tight rope of achievement and mediocrity? What is your high school doing to create a college-going culture?

Let me know your thoughts and be sure to read more of Sarah’s piece in Education Week.