Low-income Kids Really Want to Go to College. Here's Why It's Not Happening

Impoverished students need more remedial education, more resources, and more access to school counselors.

(Photo: Quavondo/Getty Images)

A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

A new study confirms that low-income students understand that education is a path out of poverty, and most aspire to go to college—at an even higher rate than most students overall. Yet, unlike their middle- or upper-class peers, poor students are significantly less likely to head to college after graduating from high school—and if they get there, they aren’t as academically prepared. That's the finding of a joint study by the college-prep testing company ACT and the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships.

The report, titled The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013: Students From Low-Income Families, illustrates the disconnect between the messages delivered to students whose household incomes are near the poverty line and the reality those students face. It also comes at a time when the White House has announced a high-profile initiative to get more poor students into the college pipeline and out of the cycle of poverty.

“This report underscores the disconnect between students’ plans for their educational future and their preparation to put those plans in action,” Scott Montgomery, ACT’s vice president for policy, advocacy, and government relations, said in a statement. “There’s great room for improvement and an urgent need for reducing the barriers faced by students from low-income families.”

The report is based on statistics culled from roughly 1.8 million high school students in the graduating class of 2013 who took the ACT college readiness assessment test. About 440,000 of them had household incomes of $36,000 or less, which the report designated as low-income. The federal poverty guideline for a family of four is around $23,000.  

Of the students from low-income families who took the ACT, 95 percent said they wanted to continue their education—18 percentage points higher than the test pool as a whole. However, after earning their diplomas only 59 percent of those students immediately enrolled in community college or a four-year school, compared with 71 percent of all students.

Further, the study showed that nearly 70 percent of those who made it to college hadn’t taken a recommended core curriculum in high school—four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies—compared with 84 percent of students from high-income families.

According to a White House report released in January, students who aren’t ready for college are less likely to succeed and more likely to drop out, by a wide margin, even if they have access to remedial courses. At the same time, in today's high-tech economy, a college degree is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty; many employers won’t even consider a candidate without one.

“A college education is one of the surest ways into the middle class, yet each year hundreds of thousands of low-income students face barriers to college access and success: these students lack the guidance and support they need to prepare for college,” the report's authors wrote.

“Meanwhile, overall gains in U.S. college attainment have stalled while other countries have continued to increase their share of citizens that complete college,” according to the report. “In 1990, the U.S. ranked first in the world in four-year degree attainment among 25–34 year olds; today, the U.S. ranks 12th.”

At a summit earlier this year, the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and about 100 colleges and 40 nonprofit education activist groups identified a range of solutions. They include closing the resource gap between have and have-not school districts, increasing the number of remedial courses available to low-income students, and pairing college-prep organizations with struggling schools and their high-achieving students.

Those are all commonsense solutions. The clock is ticking on implementing them. President Obama's goal of once again having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 is less than six years away. If there's one takeaway from this report, it's that if we're going to reach that goal, we need to get cracking.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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