A recent New York Times article focuses on the low college entry and completion rates for lower-income students. Greg Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine summarizes these troubling trends in the article: “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer-the place where upward mobility gets started…But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high-and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.” The Times article digs deeper into these troubling trends to help shed light on why it is so difficult for many low-income individuals to complete college.
Each of the young women profiled in the story appeared to be on the road to success. Yet four years after high school, not one of them has a four year degree, only one is studying full-time and two have “crushing” student debt loads.
In telling the stories of these young women, Jason DeParle points out a number of reasons for these trends. He notes that fewer low-income students have the financial support that often comes with two parent homes. Due to increasing economic segregation in this country, low-income students frequently attend lower quality secondary schools. As a result, many have less rigorous academic preparation for college. To compound these challenges, they generally do not have the resources to pay for the ubiquitous college preparation courses that give so many more affluent students an advantage. Affluent families, according to the article, have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons, and summer camps. The daunting (and growing) cost of college education is another critical factor.
The young women in the story also made certain choices that harmed their chances, including difficult personal relationships that dragged them down. Some experienced unexpected health crises, including severe depression. In one case, the student’s problems at school spiraled because of financial aid errors that might have been corrected sooner if the student or her family felt empowered to ask more questions and fight back or had more resources to understand the financial aid process.
There is a lot of blame to go around, but few solutions. Perhaps college should not be the entry ticket to upward mobility in this country. This is an important topic to debate, but for now, having a college education is the major entry point to a higher economic status. Yet government policies have generally failed to promote more equal access to higher education for lower-income students.
Each of the women featured in the Times article is an individual with a distinct life story. Aside from economic class, they are as varied as any other group of individuals in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and decision making skills. The difference for these women and so many others like them is the absence of a safety net when problems arise. There is little or no margin for error.
As we wrote in a previous post:
“There is plenty of blame to go around. Colleges and universities in all sectors too often focus on their own bottom lines and rankings (or in some cases profits) rather than truly promoting equal access to education. Too many fight efforts to hold them accountable for consistently poor outcomes. State governments continue to slash aid for public higher education, making it increasingly out of reach for the neediest students. In the meantime, as costs escalate, grant dollars pay for less and students are increasingly forced to rely on loans to pay for school. Federal policy should target funds to those who most need them, yet some policies, such as tax breaks, provide help mainly for higher-income students and families.
At the same time, federal policy hammers student borrowers who get behind on their loans. ..We need to reset our policy priorities so that these borrowers are given the opportunity for a fresh start, to finish school, and hopefully climb the economic ladder.”
We will be issuing a new set of policy priorities soon focusing on the goals of promoting equal access to higher education, giving borrowers a chance to go back to school, restoring a reasonable safety net, and ensuring that federal funds target the needs of students. We also urge low-income students to share their experiences with us.