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The graduation gap: Why poor kids aren't getting through college
Poor kids have a hard time getting into college. They have an even harder time graduating. - photo by Lane Anderson
It's a well-known fact that poor kids have a harder time getting into college. But what's not talked about as much is that when they do get in, they have an even harder time graduating.

Poor kids lack some of tools rich kids have to get into college SAT prep courses, private tutors, help with writing entrance essays and sometimes parental encouragement, not to mention the financial backing to make college a real possibility. The College Board's data shows students from families earning more than $200,000 score an average of more than 350 points higher on the SAT than those from the lowest income families.

But staying in college can be just as tough. A new study from the National Center for Education Statistics followed a cohort of 15,000 high school sophomores. The Education Longitudinal Study recorded their progress from high school through college and into the workforce, and now the students are in their late 20s, the results are in.

Lauren Musu-Gillette, who co-authored the study for the National Center for Education Statistics, was taken aback by the disparity she found between poor kids and rich kids.

"I was surprised to find that 60 percent of students from the highest income families graduated from college, while only 14 percent of those from the lowest socio-economic status did," she said. "I didn't expect to see that."

Not just about smarts

As teenagers, rich kids and poor kids were hopeful about college, according to the study. More than 70 percent planned to get an undergraduate degree, including 87 percent in the top income quartile, and 58 percent in the bottom quartile.

But 13 years later, the majority of students from wealthy families have college degrees, while just a sliver of poor kids do. What happened?

Lest anyone think the difference is because poor kids didn't have the academic chops to make it in college, think again, said Susan Dynarski, professor of education, public policy at the University of Michigan who wrote about the study in The New York Times. The study included test scores, so that's an easy hypothesis to debunk.

Of teens who scored among the top 25 percent in the math test, the students from the top income group had a very high college completion rate of 74 percent. But only 41 percent of the top-scoring poor kids got degrees.

"It's not just about who the smart kids are," says Dynarski. "Put bluntly, class trumps ability when it comes to college graduation."

The meandering path

About 44 percent of kids from low-income families (family incomes of $25,000 or less) attend community college out of high school, and community colleges don't have great graduation rates.

Depending on how you measure it, only 20 percent of students at public, two-year colleges earn a degree within three years according to the National Center for Data Statistics.

Yonkers Partners in Education is a college access and preparedness program in Yonkers, New York, where nearly half the residents speak a language other than English at home, and a striking 75 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program, a common poverty indicator. Through free SAT prep and college counseling, it was able to get over 70 percent of high school students in Yonkers admitted to college, and about 42 percent of those grads went to a local community college.

But after three and a half years, only 6.7 percent were still enrolled or graduated from the community college.

This mimics numbers from a longitudinal Johns Hopkins study released last year that followed 800 Baltimore school children, and found that 45 percent of middle-class kids had graduated from college versus just 4 percent of poor kids.

Study author Karl Alexander explained there are two pathways through college.

"The middle-class pathway is the fast track through college they enroll immediately after high school, go to school full time and go continuously through graduation. They are more likely to be living on campus and strengthening their attachment to school," said Alexander.

Poor kids more often take the "meandering path," and might have to pay as they go. They are more likely to enroll part time and commute, two things that are associated with reduced likelihood of graduation.

Extra barriers

Both wealthy and poor kids can enter college unprepared, but it's harder for poor kids to get extra help when they need it, like private tutors, says Wendy Nadel, director of Yonkers Partners in Education. She said many students are placed in remedial courses that eat up their financial aid.

"Do you know how many billions are thrown at putting kids into college who will never make it past Year One? Its totally discouraging for the students, and it is a racket," said Nadel.

She also notes many students from her districts have to travel three hours round trip by bus to get to the local community college, and work to help support their families: "One thing can go wrong and school is thrown off," she said.

Alexander found similar obstacles in his study.

"We hear kids talk about how they have a hard time seeing it through because they have child-care responsibilities, or they help a needy parent, or they don't have the wherewithal to cobble together tuition or buy books," he said.

Now YPIE has opened a counseling center inside the local community college to help guide low-income students beyond high school and through the college years.

Alexander said job placement programs starting early in the high school years would help low-income students make connections and give them access to networks that will help them get internships and jobs later.

"We need to invest in academic and vocational development if we're serious about doing this better," he said.
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