Low-income, high scores, no degree

Even when low-income students earn high test scores, they struggle to complete a college degree, reports the New York Times.  The story looks at three Galveston girls who spent weekends and summers in a college readiness program. One went to community college so she could stay near her boyfriend and her family. Another went to a distant Texas State University campus because the application form was the easiest. The third went to Emory, but didn’t get the financial aid she was due.

Four years later, the community college student has earned an associate degree, but didn’t transfer to go for a bachelor’s because she thought it was “selfish” to leave her family. She works as a beach-bar cashier and a spa receptionist.. The Texas State student is still working on a bachelor’s degree, owes $44,000 and will need graduate school to qualify for a job. The Emory student quit owing $61,000. She works for $8.50 an hour at her boyfriend’s family’s furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

. . . “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

Fewer low-income students have the support of two parents, notes the Times. “Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools.” And college costs have risen sharply, even with financial aid.

“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”

The Galveston three worked at low-wage jobs while in college, sometimes skipping — and then failing — classes to earn a little more money.

 Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution has found that low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26 percent of eighth graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.

The Galveston friends had help getting on the college track when they were in high school. But they weren’t prepared to advocate for themselves in college — especially the Emory student. She never went to the financial aid office to find out why she was getting a raw deal. She didn’t meet with academic advisors or tutors when she was doing poorly. It’s not so much that she lacked “grit.” She lacked chutzpah.

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