We’re Doing a Lousy Job of Getting Poor Kids to College

For low-income students in the United States, the college math is bleak: only one-third of kids from families at or below the poverty line attend college, and even fewer graduate.

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For low-income students in the United States, the college math is bleak: only one-third of kids from families at or below the poverty line attend college, and even fewer graduate. The Department of Education has committed to improving those numbers, but a new report casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of the government’s efforts.

The federal government has four major college prep programs for disadvantaged students: Upward Bound, Talent Search, Upward Bound Math-Science and Student Support Services, collectively known as TRIO. In a policy brief published this week in the journal The Future of Children, researchers from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution synthesized evaluations of each program and found them all “ineffective,” with no impact on getting low-income students to and through college.

One study cited in the report tracked a random group of 1,500 students assigned to participate Upward Bound and a randomly selected control group of 1,300 students over 13 years. When Mathematica Policy Research ended the study in 2004, they found Upward Bound had “no detectable effect” on whether students enrolled in college, the type of institution they applied to, or whether or not they applied for financial aid. “We should be able to detect some change if we look at the students and say, what would have happened had we not had the programs?” said Cecilia Elena Rouse, co-author of the policy brief and dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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Rouse and co-author Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, suggest that only programs that have demonstrated positive results should retain funding, comparing it to ineffective medicine being pulled from the shelves. “If your doctor prescribes to you a medicine that’s supposed to help your headaches and you have just as many headaches, is that really the right drug to be taking?” Rouse said. “These programs should be held to the same standard. If there’s no change in outcome for students who completed the program, then we need to do something different to make sure we are actually helping the students who we said we were trying to help.”

Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter said over email: “Improving accountability and leveraging innovations with evidence to produce better student outcomes from college preparation programs are key elements of a comprehensive postsecondary education reform agenda as we begin discussions to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.”

Supporters of the programs insist they haven’t been given enough chance to succeed–and they point to their combined yearly budget of about $1 billion as evidence. “It’s unfair to call the programs a failure and constantly penalize them for not reaching their goals when we haven’t provided them with sufficient support to reach those goals,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Educational Policy, a group dedicated to expanding access to college. “We know these students need the most, but we give them the least and expect stellar outcomes.”

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The relatively small amount spent on TRIO represents a “paltry” investment for such seemingly important goal, said Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We could spend five or 10 billion on this,” he said. “The payoff is obviously very high.”

Statistics cited in the article back up his point. Students from low-income families who earn a four-year degree are 80% less likely to be poor. And since the 1980s, the median family income of adults in their 30s has increased only for those with degrees from four-year schools. Yet just 34% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds enroll in college, compared to 79% of those from families in the top income bracket. Of those students who do make it to college, only about 11% graduate.

Even low-income students who excelled in high school tend to enroll in colleges that are below their academic peer group. The vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students in the high school graduating class of 2008–those who scored at the 90th percentile or above on the SAT or ACT and whose GPA was A- or above–did not apply to any of the nation’s 238 most selective schools, according to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research released in Dec. 2012. As a result, these students are more likely to apply to enroll in colleges that have low graduation rates and provide less support and resources for students.

“For most people the opportunity to move up economically depends on getting a college degree,” said Sean Reardon, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford whose research has shown that the achievement gap between students from high-income and low-income families has grown by 40% in the last 30 years–making it much larger than the gap between white and black students. “College is still very much the way to achieve the American Dream.”

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