We tend to think of cost as the main barrier to college. But were that the case, scholarships and financial aid would bring in more low-income students. However, according to research released last week by the Century Foundation, 74 percent of students at the most selective colleges in the country come from the top quartile of family incomes, while only 3 percent come from the poorest. Moreover, while about 60 percent of low-income students enter a post-secondary program at some point, only about 11 percent earn a degree.
Researchers from the Century Foundation use these facts to argue for an affirmative-action program to get more students from lower-income families to go to selective schools. Their reasoning is clear: Graduates of top-tier colleges have better access to career networks and earn more throughout life. And schools like Harvard and Yale also have extremely high graduation rates: Students who go there are likely to finish.
Lower-income students are getting the message that they should go to college, but not everyone will attend the most selective colleges -- even with help. Regardless of where they matriculate, low-income students need the academic support that will allow them to earn a degree.
Elite colleges have the institutional support and the incentives to keep students enrolled, whatever their income level. In 2006, researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research followed Chicago public school graduates and found that students with a 3.5 grade point average who went to the least selective four-year colleges were half as likely to graduate as those who went to more selective colleges. For example, 37 percent of those who attended Chicago State University, a popular choice for grads, were likely to graduate in six years, while 72 percent of those with a 3.5 GPA who went to Loyola University graduated in the same amount of time. Research has already established that GPA is the best predictor of success in college, so, all things being equal, the graduation rates should have been the same.
One would think the opposite is true: Schools with reputations for being more academically rigorous must be harder to stay in. While the Chicago students who attended selective schools were less likely to graduate in six years than those college's general populations, they still did better than their Chicago peers who went to less selective colleges. When the researchers looked into why this was, they found that markers of selectivity, like high mean SAT scores, didn't themselves correlate to a greater likelihood of graduating. Rather, it must be some other institutional characteristic of selective schools -- one not necessarily being measured -- that encourages students to graduate.
Other studies show what that characteristic might be. A new program at the University of North Carolina pairs low-income students with faculty and peer mentors, monitors their grades, and instills them with basic job-hunting skills like business etiquette. Graduation rates for program participants were 17 percent higher than for students in the control group. Low-income students simply need more resources, and that's as true for students at the college level as it is for those in elementary and high school. The kinds of schools most likely to serve lower-income students, though, often have the fewest resources. And state-level higher-education funds are vulnerable as states shrink their costs in a difficult budgetary environment.
In Washington state, another program shows why low-income students don't finish college and what can be done to help them reach a beneficial point in their post-secondary careers. As Julie Strawn wrote in a Prospect special report last year, the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training initiative found three reasons low-income students don't finish. They tend to lack confidence, be underprepared, and face higher costs, not just for courses but because many need to support families while attending school.
To address those concerns, community and technical colleges receive state grants to pair academic classes with classes that earn credentials, so that students can, for example, receive basic literacy and math instruction at the same time that they're working toward a career. These schools also provide students with more financial help and more intensive counseling. Students who received the special grants graduated at higher rates than regular Pell grant recipients and other low-income students in the same programs.
Taken together, the research is an argument for flooding resources into the kinds of colleges that lower-income students attend in large numbers. It also helps explain the Obama administration's $98 million initiative for historically black colleges and universities and $12 billion plan for community colleges. High-achieving low-income students would benefit by a system that helps them get into better schools, but more average students, whose white and wealthier counterparts do well by comparison, would benefit from more colleges that support them and refuse to let them drop out. Those schools also can't cut the kind of mundane administrative services -- processing financial-aid claims and providing guidance counseling, for example -- that are often on the chopping block in lean economic times.