Home » Uncategorized » How to Help Disadvantaged Students Reach the Middle Class

How to Help Disadvantaged Students Reach the Middle Class

By Katherine Mangan October 30, 2017 

Austin, Tex.

Gaping opportunity gaps between low-income students and their peers can be plugged only if campuses share data and success strategies, say researchers who gathered here on Monday to kick off a new national effort to help disadvantaged students reach the middle class.

So far, about 200 colleges representing 3.5 million students have signed on to the Collegiate Leaders in Increasing MoBility, or CLIMB, partnership.

The inaugural conference, held at the University of Texas’ flagship campus, brought together higher-education economists, nonprofit groups, and college officials who are all seeking ways to increase college completion rates for underrepresented students.

Policy solutions need to be tailored to specific campuses, and that can’t happen until better data are available and shared, said John N. Friedman, an associate professor of economics and international and public affairs at Brown University. Mr. Friedman, one of the key researchers working on the project, started his presentation with a chart showing the steadily declining percentage of children earning more, when adjusted for inflation, than their parents.

Getting low-income students in the door can be a challenge at a time of widespread skepticism about the value of a college degree.

“In rural North Carolina and rural areas elsewhere, higher education is seen as a way to kill a community,” said Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina system and a former education secretary under President George W. Bush. “Sonny or Precious goes off to college never to be seen again.”

First-generation students can also get overwhelmed by the “crazy quilt” of paperwork and requirements they have to navigate through, she said.

Low expectations are another problem. Some educators assume that low-income or minority students either aren’t cut out for or will struggle in college, said John B. King Jr., president of the Education Trust and a former education secretary under President Obama. If their high-school counselor was responsible for 600 students, such students might not have gotten the encouragement they needed to seriously consider college, he pointed out. And without better advising, students and their families are sometimes swayed by anecdotes of acquaintances who had a bad experience with college.

Students from underserved groups might be disillusioned, Mr. King said, if a cousin who served in Afghanistan came back, went to a for-profit college and “now owes a bunch of money he’ll never pay off.”

Or if a next-door neighbor who stopped in and out of community college, juggling kids and schoolwork, finally is ready to transfer to a four-year college, but it won’t accept her credits.

“For those people, higher education doesn’t seem like such a good deal,” he said.

Educators should question the conventional wisdom that most community-college students have too many competing obligations to attend full time, said James B. Milliken, chancellor of the City University of New York.

CUNY’s ASAP program, which provides students with a variety of wraparound supports like extensive advising and bus passes, has been cited as a national model because of its success in improving graduation rates. Skeptics have pointed out that it’s relatively expensive and that many low-income students can’t attend full time.

Avoiding ‘Dead End’ Credentials

Colleges should push to ensure that minority and first-generation students enroll in degrees that lead to jobs with good career prospects and don’t settle for short-term credentials of dubious value, several speakers noted.

While recent studies have questioned the value of many short-term certificates that are the fastest-growing credential at two-year colleges, Zakiya Smith, a strategy director for the Lumina Foundation, said certificates can offer a foot in the door for students who doubt their readiness for college.

“Our goal is not just focused on bachelor’s degrees,” she said. “We want people to get some kind of credential that’s not a dead end.” At the same time, the foundation wants to be sure that minority students don’t end up being tracked into lower-value credentials that could hold them back.

Better data about employment outcomes is key if colleges want to persuade applicants to consider college, Ms. Smith said.

If students are already skeptical about the value of college, they may be reluctant to take out loans, especially as sticker prices keep rising. Financial-aid advising should be tailored to students whenever possible, speakers said. A Latina might be more receptive to taking on debt if her family is present in an advising meeting, while an African-American man might respond better if the counselor is African-American or the advice is delivered by a peer.

Making a dent in the problem of unequal outcomes requires fundamentally rethinking the way colleges serve low-income or minority students, one speaker noted. College rankings reward colleges for their selectivity, so the more students who are turned away, the greater the prestige.

In higher education, “excellence is a function of who you do not admit,” rather than whom you educate, said Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, one of the nation’s largest public universities, with more than 71,000 undergraduate and graduate students, not counting those studying entirely online.

By 2025, the nation will need 11 million more people with postsecondary credentials, said Daniel Greenstein, director of education and postsecondary success for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Improving success rates among minority and low-income students is essential, he said, “if you want to keep the lights on.”

Students from underrepresented groups tend to perform better at elite colleges, but the overwhelming number of minority and first-generation students attend open- or near-open-access public institutions, speakers noted.

One of the biggest barriers they encounter are algebra requirements, Mr. Greenstein said, a problem that can be alleviated if more colleges embrace alternative math pathways that focus on statistics and other skills that might be more relevant to their majors.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, urged audience members to find out how much high-school graduates in their states earn if they don’t go to college. In his state, which has rolled out an assortment of reform efforts, including free tuition and corequisite remediation for all community colleges, the figure is $10,000, he said.

“There’s always someone in a Rotary Club meeting who says not everyone needs to go to college,” he said. Unless, of course, it’s his kid.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her atkatherine.mangan@chronicle.com.