Overcoming the poverty hurdle to achieve college success

The numbers are pretty clear: a student’s income level plays a hugely significant role in whether he or she will graduate from college. In a recent New York Times Magazine story, Paul Tough cited a staggering statistic that of college freshman who come from the bottom half of this country’s income distribution, only about 25 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 – in contrast to almost 90 percent of students from families in the top income quartile.

There is no one policy proposal or innovative program that can solve the poverty crisis facing this country. In recognition of the need to take a multi-pronged approach, last week The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institute released a set of 14 evidence-based, anti-poverty proposals that target interventions across four key areas.

All the proposals are worth checking out, but the one that especially caught our attention here at Mass Insight was the set of recommendations to address the academic barriers to higher education.

According to author Bridget Terry Long, only about a third of students leave high school prepared for college (a number that is much lower for African-American and Hispanic students).  This lack of readiness  can be caused by any combination of poor course selection, lack of academic rigor, and (at some schools) a limited number of advanced courses.  Finally, the misalignment between K-12 and higher education can make the transition confusing.  The resulting lack of academic preparation can be a “formidable barrier” to a college education for many students. Colleges and universities attempt to fill gaps in academic readiness by placing students in remedial courses but “being placed into the courses also has important implications for a student’s higher education prospects,” writes Long.

One way to improve problems with remedial courses is to prevent the need for remediation in the first place, recommended Long.  To better prepare students for college, some of Long’s specific recommendations include:

  • Students should take a more rigorous and more demanding high school course load than required by the state or district;
  • Use college placement exams as early diagnostic tools in high school;
  • Include college success data points such as college enrollment and college remediation rates into K-12 accountability systems and report cards.