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Addressing the College Completion Gap Among Low-Income Students

Addressing the College Completion Gap Among Low-Income Students

In 2002, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) began to track the college enrollment and college completion rates of a representative group of 10th-grade students from all economic levels throughout the U.S. Over the next decade, NCES followed this group as they transitioned from high school to (in most cases) postsecondary institutions.

Its latest research released in 2015 confirms that low-socioeconomic status (SES) students were less likely to complete their college education. After graduating high school, only 14 percent of low-SES students received a bachelor’s or higher degree within eight years compared to 29 percent of middle-income students.

Even academically proficient low-SES students showed lower college completion rates. NCES analyzed how students performed on standardized math tests in high school and found that while only 10 percent of low-SES students reached the highest quartile, of those who did, only 41 percent had obtained a bachelor’s degree 10 years later.

Compare this to a 53 percent degree attainment rate for middle-SES students who had comparable scores on the same math tests. NCES noted a similar pattern when reading scores were highlighted.

Fortunately, armed with research and other insights, a number of community organizations and school-based initiatives across the U.S. have developed successful programs dedicated to equipping this population with the tools and support they need to complete their education.

A Falloff After College Enrollment

More recently, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center produced its fourth annual High School Benchmarks 2016: National College Progression Rates report. This study delves into completion rates for low- and higher-income students, as well as students attending schools with varying degrees of minority populations.

For its StudentTracker service, the center sampled data from public and private schools in addition to charter schools from 50 states. All told, roughly five million high school graduates were studied in the report.

In terms of enrollment immediately after high school graduation, 54 percent of students from lower-income schools entered college compared to 69 percent of higher-income students. The high schools studied were also broken out as either high poverty (defined as schools where 75 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches) or low poverty, (where less than 25 percent of their student population was eligible for reduced-price lunches). In high-poverty schools, 51 percent of students enrolled in college right after graduation compared to 76 percent of students in low-poverty schools.

A similar gap was noted for students attending low-minority schools versus those with higher minority populations: 68 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study also examined whether a student’s socioeconomic background impacted their progress once in college. Here, again, it found a strong correlation between income and the minority population at the high school. Higher-income students advanced from the first year to the second year of college by 88 percent. Meanwhile, only 79 percent of low-income students made the same leap.

When split between low- and high-minority high schools, the results showed a similar disparity — 88 percent of students from high school with a low minority population continued on to the second year, while 81 percent from schools with larger minority populations returned.

The study further tracked students who went on to finish their college degree program. When it evaluated the class of 2009 high school graduates from high-income schools, the center found 45 percent had completed a college degree within six years. Conversely, 24 percent of those from low-income schools had obtained a postsecondary degree.

An even larger gap between graduates of low- and high-poverty high schools was documented as well. After six years, only 18 percent of high-poverty high school graduates achieved a four-year degree compared to 52 percent from schools with low poverty rates. Whether a larger percentage of minorities attended high schools also emerged as a factor, with 28 percent of high-minority high school students completing college versus 48 percent of low-minority high school grads.

Why the Gap?

One obstacle low-income students confront is simply not knowing where to find information about how to enroll in college. The NCES survey points out that a smaller percentage of low-SES students seek guidance about college entrance from typical sources such as college representatives, publications, or college search guides. This puts them at an obvious disadvantage when navigating the college application process.

Even when they enter college, low-income students encounter barriers their higher-income counterparts do not. Funding college tuition ranks high on that list, according to Beatriz Gonzalez, vice provost of the University of La Verne, a commuter college in the Los Angeles area with a student body that is 44 percent Hispanic. “That is the number-one reason our students give when they drop out,” she says in the New York Times article, Hidden Side of the College Dream: Mediocre Graduation Rates.

Other factors play into the decision as well. Many take on extra jobs to support themselves or their families, leaving them less time to spend on campus, Gonzalez points out, so they fail to have a strong connection to college life and are more likely to question their ability after a setback or poor grade.

Struggles with Debt

Even when low-income students get loans or grants, they still struggle with debt that may force them to drop out. A 2015 report by Demos, a public policy organization, notes that African-American and low-income students shoulder more student debt, even if they receive Pell Grants. Because of this, more African-American (39 percent) and low-income (38 percent) borrowers drop out of college compared to roughly a quarter of white students.

Pell Grants represent a non-loan funding source low-income students can obtain to finance a degree. However, as the College Board notes, between 2010-11 and 2015-16, the number of recipients and total grants awarded dipped from 9.3 million to 7.6 million and 39.1 billion to 28.2 billion, respectively. Distributed based on financial need, the maximum Pell Grant award for the 2016-17 school year maxes out at $5,815. For many, that amount falls short of covering the high cost of attending college.

More than Financial Aid

Many who work with low-income students say providing tuition assistance is just one piece of an interconnected puzzle required to help them complete their college education. Low-income and high-poverty students require a structured social and academic support system as well.

That’s just what the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did. Their Carolina Covenant program combines financial assistance with a non-monetary support network that includes faculty mentoring, peer counseling from previous Covenant participants, academic and career workshops, and social events. Workshops explore topics such as time management, note taking, and financial literacy.

The program launched in 2004, and it appears to have had success in helping its members graduate. Recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research published an overview of the initiative, Multifaceted Aid for Low-Income Students and College Outcomes from North Carolina, which found that the typical Covenant-eligible student was nearly 8 percent more likely to graduate in four years than his or her counterpart deemed ineligible for the program.

The authors emphasize the vital role grants play in enabling low-income student progress through college. Yet, that must be coupled with non-financial assistances as well. “Such supports are very important, but apparently only when layered on top of strong need-based financial aid that obviates the need for students to take out loans,” the report concludes.

The Dell Scholars Program follows a similar structure. Every year, 300 scholars from low-income backgrounds receive not only $20,000, a laptop and textbook credits but also counseling to help them overcome the challenges of college. Since 2004, the program has awarded more than $60 million in scholarships and support services.

Academic Support

While the Dell Scholars Program and Carolina Covenant emphasize financial aid and wraparound support services, other programs boost academic instruction. The Gateway to College National Network intervenes with students at risk of dropping out of high school by developing an academic plan that enables them to earn college credits. The organization currently operates at 41 colleges in 21 states.

More on the topic: When Effective Student Support Is Built Into an Online Degree Program

Here at College for America, we’ve partnered with Match Beyond, a Boston-based organization that guides opportunity youth on a path to a college degree. Students in Match Beyond obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree through an online platform that allows more flexibility in scheduling than a traditional college degree course. Based on a project-centric curriculum, College for America’s programs foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills students can put to use in the workplace.

These programs validate the need for combining financial aid with ongoing social and academic support to enable low-income students to succeed in college. When a holistic approach is used, the chances of men and women in this population completing their education leaps exponentially.

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