Cushioning the “Hard Fall” for Low-Income Students Going to College

Jason DeParle’s recent  New York Times profile of three young girls and their attempts at escaping the orbit of American poverty is not the most important encapsulation of poverty you’ll read this year – Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers already won that race  – but it is likely the most enlightening thing you’ll read this year at the nexus of American higher education and poverty.

Really – read it.

Americans have long styled themselves as citizens of a meritocratic country, and we expect that public education is the driver of social mobility. We’ve been told that even the poorest students – if only they put in the effort – can pull themselves out of poverty and into the middle (or upper!) class, and make a better life for themselves. This has always been somewhat of a myth – mid-century, few would argue that a black student in the South would have the same opportunity to succeed as a white student (to say nothing of the divide between white males and white females) – but it’s the carefully-crafted myth we’ve created and continue to pin our hopes on, with any exceptions merely proving the rule.

The veneer is fading. Today, we’re left with a situation where “low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests.” Think about that for a minute –the low-income students who have succeeded in spite of all of the adversity they (uniquely) faced are still falling behind their wealthier peers. We are failing to create an environment where hard-working individuals can succeed; we are failing to live up to our expectations.

Of course, there are any number of reasons why this is the case, and DeParle does a good job of illustrating them; it’s absurd to think that this problem could be immediately solved with the swish of a technocratic wand. But his reporting points to a number of changes that can be made at the campus level to reduce disadvantage:

  • Reduce the need for a part-time job. As DeParle notes, the circumstances left Angelica “cheating a $200,000 education for a $9-an-hour job.” While it’s clear that there were other things going on in Angelica’s case, part-time jobs are a time-suck on many college students – especially those who don’t have access to other funding sources. Work experience is enriching and powerfully important – but if it takes too much away from education it can be pretty destructive, too
  • Hire “Case Managers” focused on low-income students. Again and again, “Emory never found a way to intervene” –  financially, emotionally, or otherwise, Angelica’s college wasn’t able to help her when she needed it, full stop. Emory is clearly an institution that cares deeply about admitting worthy students, regardless of ability to pay; ostensibly, this is because it cares about giving all students – especially low-income students –a chance to succeed. It’d be a small investment to hire the type of administrative staff that could help ensure the paperwork is completed and each “case” is taken care of
  • Foster support networks. To generalize a bit: affluent students have a support network to help them through the difficult periods; low-income students don’t. But they have each other – if they know where to look. Schools that make a commitment to admitting low-income students should also help foster support groups to help those students through the tough times

Look: none of the above will fix this issue, and the interventions aren’t cheap. But the available evidence indicates that low-income students need support that more affluent students typically have in spades; pretending otherwise does a disservice to those students and undermines other, costlier measures designed to help.

This is a marathon issue, of which the above solutions are merely the last few steps; but crucially, they’re actionable steps now. We have to start somewhere; we have to live up to our expectations.

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