Who gets to graduate?

Whether a college student earns a degree — or just a few memories and a lot of  debt — correlates very closely with family income, writes Paul Tough in  Who Gets to Graduate? in the New York Times.

Ninety percent of freshmen from top-quartile-income families will earn a degree by age 24 compared to a quarter of freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution.

Students with similar SAT scores have very different odds of making it through college. Vanessa Brewer was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with 22 on the ACT (equivalent to a 1020 SAT score) and a 3.5 grade point average because she ranked in the top 7 percent of her high school class. She wants to major in nursing and become a nurse anesthesiologist. Students with similar grades and test scores have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating if they come from families in the top-income quartile, writes Tough. “If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.” Only 52 percent of UT-Austin students complete a degree in four years, compared to 70 percent at comparable flagship universities. Admitting students by class rank raises the percentage of first-generation-to-college Latinos, blacks and rural whites, but disadvantaged students tend to have lower test scores than the UT-Austin average. And they’re less likely to make it through. UT is trying to help high-risk students through “student success programs” that include “small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises,” writes Tough. Some students get an extra scholarship in exchange for leadership training. Telling students their anxiety is normal and won’t last can be very powerful, researchers have found. In one experiment at an elite college, first-year students read brief essays by older students.

The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. . . . Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

Vanessa Brewer failed a statistics test in her first month at UT. She was shaken: High school math had been easy. But she persevered, pulling out a B+ for the semester. When she struggled with chemistry, she spent six or more hours a week at the tutoring center. She earns A’s or B’s on every test. And she’s met two juniors, also black women majoring in nursing. She told Tough: “I felt like I was alone, but then I found people who said, you know, ‘I cried just like you.’ And it helped.”

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    It would be nice to know which hoc is post and which is propter.
    Financially, about the only thing that could matter is differences in part-time work. Too much of that could cut into study time. Still, if you have, say, twelve hours in class and thirty hours at the books–an exaggeration, probably–that leaves about 120 hours in the week.
    Being financially unable to have all the fun the Big People on Campus are ostentatiously having is a bummer, but it can leave you time to study, or at least catch up on personal and administrative issues. And there are lots of kids in that box, so you wouldn’t be alone.
    Other possibilities include presuming unfortunate things about the lower-quintile families and their kids’ attitudes toward one thing or another. I don’t think anybody wants to go there. May be nothing there, but it’s a puzzle.

  2. “She was shaken: High school math had been easy.”

    So why not make high school math hard?

    • Paraphrasing the principal of the local high school: The voters will not allow any honors math courses. That is considered elitism and we are categorically against elitism.

  3. High School math today is probably not the same stuff that was taught 25 or more years ago. Given that grade inflation and watered down coursework is probably the standard today.

    A college math prep program in the early 80’s would have consisted of:

    Algebra I (9th grade)
    Analytic Geometry w/Proofs (10th grade)
    Algebra II/Trig (11th grade)
    Statistics or Pre-calc or calculus (12th grade).

    Though the college bound requirements in my day was math through Algebra II/Trig, then either pre-calc or calculus as a freshman at college.

  4. I’d like to see this data sorted by high school course quality.

    I know from my experience at a state engineering school that high school prep matters. My high school was too small for honors sciences. Even with only college prep students taking science beyond 9th grade, you can’t do well when the classes are taught by someone who flunked out of your future college. Math though, I had an excellent teacher who prepared me well..good thing b/c I needed the extra study time to use for science. Saw a lot of people change out of engineering because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to make up for weak high school math and science courses.

    • IGM,

      In my day (late 70’s to 1981), we didn’t have honors course per se, we did group students by ability, so enrolling in the harder courses (Biology II, Physics II, Chemistry II, Anatomy and Physiology) was by a minimum B grade in the first course, or by teacher permission.

      That being said, the only honors stuff we had was the IB program, but back then, we were the first high school in the state to get it, and only the real brainiacs actually got to enroll (based on grades, PSAT, and class placement), and it was damned hard work from what some of the students told me 🙂