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.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    “character” includes things like “chutzpah”. Not solely honesty and moral courage.
    Among other things, “chutzpah” has to be seen to work in one’s life, early life. Be interesting to see if there were government benefits in their families, benefits whose receipt doesn’t require ambition or self-advocacy. IOW, an anti-example.
    Or, perhaps, unfamiliarity with how things work caused examples of energy to fail and be seen to fail.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      The story in the NYT indicates that it is not lack of grit that is the problem here. Lack of self advocacy is an issue (but also getting screwed by the system …one example has Emory adjusting up a parental income, which decreased the financial aid … So more hours at a job. The school adjustment was wrong and the kid didn’t find out about it until too late). As is not knowing how the system works (one school set up an extra email account for applicants … our hero didn’t know this, so the school thought that the student was ignoring school communications. I’d guess that upper middle class parents would have called the school very early, “Hey, why haven’t we heard from you?” and the issue would have been minor? And some is poor choices about boyfriends (though I don’t think any of the three profiled women is pregnant).

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Part of the problem is the lack of a concrete end goal beyond a degree. Affluent and middle class parents give their kids more than money and generalized support; they give them practical career advice. That parental life experience translates into guiding their kids into practical paths.

        For poor kids, they frequently don’t know what they don’t know. Career advisers and guidance counselors are poor substitutes for parents who know what it takes to get into law/medical/engineering school.

        Regardless of test scores, after graduation I would never advise a poor kid (and I was one) to go off to college without a specific educational goal beyond getting a degree in..something.

  2. I recently read an article about factors influencing low-SES kids’ college careers, which mentioned some of the same factors. The kids and parents (likely to be just one) didn’t know how the college system worked, with regard to financial aid, to academic advisement/extra help or to professors’ academic expectations. They also were likely to come from families where academic demands were not a priority, as compared to family demands. The HS program these girls were in would have been even better if some of these kinds of issues were addressed, as part of the college-prep process.

    • There is a program/class called AVID that does exactly this. It was specifically designed to help students who come from family backgrounds with little or no college experience.

  3. I think mismatch played a part for the student who attended Emory. “A score of 1,240 on the math and reading portions of her SAT ranked her at the 84th percentile nationwide. ”

    Fine, except Emory’s 25th percentile in 2008 scored 1260, which places them at the 86th percentile nationwide. (http://news.emory.edu/special/data_review/q_and_a.html)

    Thus, she was in the lowest quartile. Had she attended Texas State University, she would have been in the highest quartile, even the top 15 % (according to College Board’s Big Future.)

    • 1240 on the SAT just means that she didn’t pay thousands of dollars to take the review classes/tutors to score higher on the SAT. It doesn’t means she wasn’t prepared for the classes.

      • Please cite a study which demonstrates a reliable return on SAT tutoring, in excess of that produced by taking the SAT twice. The best figures I’ve been able to find are 30 points. I realize it’s a favorite belief in some quarters that tutoring can raise scores significantly. I don’t share that belief. Show me a study, not assertions by tutoring services, which have a vested interest in positive stories of tutoring.

        1240 is a respectable score on the SAT. It does not change the fact that three quarters of her Emory classmates presented higher scores. As many college classes grade on a curve, she may have been prepared to pass her courses, but one would not expect her to be at the top of her class. By the way, I would say the same of a doctor’s child with the same scores.

        • The comments by her professors lead me to believe that the big problem wasn’t her lack of ability, but rather some of the things Stacy alluded to in her comments: a lack of focus and an absence of a connection with an invested loved one who’d gone through and knew how to play the college game. In fact, In fact, I think it’s really likely that she would have ended up in the same place where she is now had she gone to Texas State or whatever other school you think would make a better fit for someone with a 1240 SAT score.

          My question is why a university with a $6 billion endowment and $600 million in annual funding from the government is asking a student with this type of financial profile to pay anything at all.

          • “In fact, I think it’s really likely that she would have ended up in the same place where she is now had she gone to Texas State or whatever other school you think would make a better fit for someone with a 1240 SAT score.”

            Yes, it would have been nice if she had read her email. Her SAT score would be comfortably in-range for the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Both universities would have been much closer to home. UT (#46) and Emory (#20) are not very far apart in the US News & World Report rankings–not different enough to risk jettisoning one’s financial future.

            The guidance counselor at her school seems to have done a good job in encouraging her charges to “dream big.” More attention should have been paid to the financial side of the equation. She should never have been allowed to take on a private loan for more than her parents’ annual income for _one year_ of college. Never. Not when there were more affordable options available. One of those options might have been delaying enrollment at Emory for a year in order to file the paperwork for financial aid in time.

            There should be a rigorous course required of high school guidance counselors on the ins-and-outs of college applications, which would include how to run a net-cost estimator. I believe all colleges must offer a net-cost estimator on their websites. As long as I’m dreaming, it would be nice for public high schools to have “real” college counselors, rather than making guidance counselors divide their time between emotional and academic counseling.

        • Years ago (maybe a couple of decades), I was very impressed with the article from a black columnist whose oldest kid was starting her college search. He would not allow her to consider any school where her SATs didn’t not place her within 1 std. deviation of the white/Asian freshman class mean, and preferable closer. He did not want her in a mismatch situation.

        • My kids attended several highly-ranked high schools which sent almost all kids to college and I never encountered a guidance counselor who cared about academics or who had any significant knowledge of them; their focus was strictly on emotions. Academically, they were useless at best, and often a negative – like the whole department at my older sons’ school. They told incoming freshmen that no one took more than one or two honors classes (general, college prep, honors and AP levels – the latter requiring honors prereqs) – despite the fact that ALL of the top 10% had taken ALL academic classes at honors/AP level, and most of the top 25% had done the same. A 3.0 average with no honors was in the bottom half. Fortunately, the parent grapevine was better-informed.

          They also had no clue about SAT II testing, let alone CLEP or JETS. As for college applications, equally useless. One can only imagine what the department was/is like in schools which send few kids to college. Expecting them to know anything useful about financial aid is a BIG dream.

          • It would be more effective in increasing college completion rates than trying to educate all high school seniors.

            I think the comparison to the “affluent” students also misses the mark. Some middle- and upper-class parents will send children to college who shouldn’t attend college. That doesn’t mean that the college degree improves the child’s life prospects. It means the parents save face. Even so, in the NYT’s own tables, some 46% of upper-income students don’t complete college.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    This stat:

    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.

    Actually is a lot closer than I would have expected … only a 4 percentile point advantage for being wealthier. I’d have expected more.

    Maybe things get more extreme as we compare bottom decile in income with top decile in income (holding the academic performance the same)?

  5. 1240 is a decent SAT score, but note that only one of the three girls had high scores, not all three. It wasn’t a mismatch.

    The minute Angelica was told she had to borrow 40,000 and had her boyfriend cosign? Seriously? She was a moron. Emory comes in for a lot of blame, too. They shouldn’t have allowed her to be stupid. They should have either revoked admission or given her the money. If they allowed her to cosign a loan at 18 without parental supervision and proof the parents could pay, they should eat the loan.

    But this isn’t about class. It’s about money.

    • We aren’t told the other women’s SAT scores.

      The “triplet” who stayed home and attended community college is in the best position at this point. No debt (mentioned), a job, a completed degree, and the option to complete a four-year degree in two years at some point in the future.

      “The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate,” said Mr. Chingos, the Brookings researcher. “There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.””

      Well, that is what people claim. I wonder how it looks if you correct for the percentage of middle-class students at each school? It also ignores the long-term consequences of debt. The low-income students may also be trading in potentially higher class standing, higher GPA, and less debt for much lower class standing, lower GPA, longer time to graduate, and much more debt.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    Mark, I read that stat differently. When we compare bright successful lower-income students to low-scoring higher-income students, the higher income students graduate from college more. Even though the lower income students are smarter. That’s sad.

    • Actually, the only thing those students got was a lifetime of debt slavery, since their loans cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy.

      Leaving Emory with 60K of debt for a job paying $8.50/hr (which the student could have gotten w/out the pile of debt accrued) is probably the first issue I’d start addressing with parents of high school freshmen and sophomores.

      A college degree is nice to have, but can the holder make a long term career with the degree?

    • You are correct.

      But then we have two different measures … How do we compare things with different units?

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    I think the stat is meant to emphasize that having money is much more important to college graduation rates than having high scores and grades. Even the low-scoring students with money manage to graduate at 30%, whereas the high-scoring students with no money could only graduate at 26%. We should be doing better for bright low-income students.

    Cal is right that Angelica had no business borrowing $40K. That’s preposterous. But notice how being from a low-income family put her in that position. Plenty of students with from higher-income families would be inclined to make the same foolish choice– but they don’t have to, because their parents work out the financial aid situation for them. Angelica is no more foolish than the higher-income students; she just has fewer resources than they do.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I would want to know what the mean “above average” SAT (or whatever) score was. I don’t think of SAT M+V of 1,000 (new scale … Old scale of About 900) as college material at all (on average). If 30% of high income kids with these scores get 4 year degrees, I’d really like to know in what and from where …

  8. Cardinal Fang says:

    Mark, the 25th-75th SAT scores at Ole Miss (not to pick on it, but it was the first school I thought of) are 460 / 590 M, 470 / 590 V. Plenty of kids with 500 M, 500 V go to college. And graduate, if their parents are well-off.

    • Um, no. If they graduate, it’s because the schools are basically high schools. Or they are losing a lot of black students, whose incoming sAT scores drag down the average. Ole Miss’s black students have something like a 40% graduation rate.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    An SAT I score of 500 on math or verbal is about the 50th percentile *of test takers*. Undoubtedly students who don’t take the test would drive percentiles down, so a score of 500 is maybe around the 55th or 60th percentile (or something like that) of all high school students.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some time back, Instapunit wrote, or linked to, an article about middle-class stuff. The point was that if you give, emphasis on give, poor people middle class stuff–homes (see CRA), money for cars, etc.–they will become middle class. In fact, having middle class stuff indicates you are middle class in the sense you had what it took to get the stuff. The stuff is a signifier, not a basis or cause. Most middle class folks haven’t inherited a ton of money, that requiring the previous generation to die, which means the kids are in their sixties, for the most part.
    And it’s not restricted to brains.

    • Middle-class/homeowner status is a proxy variable for the habits, behaviors and values that enable that life. It used to be that way for a college degree, because colleges quickly weeded out those unprepared and/or unwilling to do serious college work.

      It’s the same as those studies that found that kids who took Latin, 8th-grade algebra, foreign languages, debate or AP classes etc. did better on various measures than kids who didn’t. True, but those things didn’t cause better results; it was simply a correlation. Those kids who took such classes were, by definition at that time, the most able, prepared and motivated kids, so those classes were merely proxy variables for identifying such kids. Of course, they did better, because they were inherently different from kids not taking those courses.

  11. Cardinal Fang says:

    Ole Miss has about a 58-60% six year graduation rate. And their 50th percentile SAT scores hover around 500. Hence, people with scores around 500 M, 500 V are graduating from Ole Miss. I can’t say whether Ole Miss is more rigorous than a high school.

    • Ole Miss’s BLACK grad rate is 41%.

      “Hence, people with scores around 500 M, 500 V are graduating from Ole Miss.”

      You don’t know if there are people with scores around 500m, 500v. The white students could have much higher scores, the black much lower.

      Only 20+% of blacks nationwide have scores on any section of the SAT in excess of 500. So the odds that Ole Miss has blacks with those test scores are very low–certainly not many.

      You can’t make that claim, in other words.

      • Having some familiarity with the SEC, I would venture to guess that Ole Miss black students are disproportionately likely to be on the football and basketball teams and are thus likely to have less-than-stellar SAT/ACT scores, as compared to non-athlete blacks or to the student body average.

  12. FYI, the SAT has been re-normed (adjusted) at least twice since the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A score of 1380 probably would correlate to a score of 1000-1120 back then.

  13. John Thompson says: