Why Some Poor Students Aren't Graduating College

Despite being heralded as a great equalizer, education can widen the socioeconomic gap between affluent and poor college students. Previously, I blogged about the trend of top-achieving low-income high school students not applying to top American colleges and universities. But what happens to students from poor neighborhoods who do go onto college?

High school students from low-income neighborhoods tend to graduate later, drop out, and perform at lower rates in college than their more affluent counterparts, according to a New York Times article that profiled how three ambitious teenaged girls from Texas fared in college. In their high school (which was labeled "academically unacceptable"), the teenagers were top students, but college provided them with a starkly different experience:

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

The report cites financial obligations as a chief factor that prevent low-income students from excelling in college. Poor students in college have to work, a burden their affluent classmates can often avoid. Simply put, working takes time away from studying, which can put students on the road to academic probation, low GPAs, or failed courses.

The Times article also highlights some startling points that underscore the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students:

  • Fewer than 30% of poor students enroll in a four-year college.
  • By eighth grade, high-income students are four grade levels above low-income students.
  • Fathers in low-income communities do not spend time with their children.
  • Affluent families are 10 times richer than they were a generation ago.
  • 26% of low-income eighth graders who are top achievers go on to obtain college degrees from a four-year university.
  • Affluent families outspend low-income families on enrichment activities such as music lessons and summer camps.

One of the three girls profiled in the Times piece had been accepted to Emory University, an elite school in Georgia. She started her academic career strong but fell into a deep depression and did not get the help she needed. She ended up being suspended for academic probation and ultimately left school to take a low-wage position at her boyfriend's furniture store.

For poor students, acceptance into college can lead to better-paying jobs, but if economic realities or other challenges sidetrack them, it can lead to regrets and high debt.

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