Education — earning a college degree — has long been assumed to be the “great equalizer” that can pull people up the income ladder into the middle class and beyond. But in recent years, what has been held as a gospel truth is being questioned by statistics: According to figures cited in the New York Times, there is now a 45 percentage point difference between upper- and lower-income students who earn bachelor’s degrees. But thirty years ago that gap was only 30 percentage points.
Why Lower-Income Students Often Struggle in College
The New York Times cites a number of reasons that I’ve noted in years of teaching students at a small Catholic university in Jersey City: the deepening gulf between the haves and the have-nots; societal changes that have left more lower-income students in single-parent homes; growing segregation in neighborhoods so poor students attend public schools of lower quality; the ever-higher cost to attend college (average tuition for a public university rose 60 percent in the past two decades).
More than a few of my school’s students have attended poor, urban high schools which sometimes shut their doors in the winter when the heating system breaks and the school district has no money for repairs. More than a few have been raised by their grandparents and have relatives (their fathers) who are incarcerated. Many struggle to graduate in four years, if at all, because
- They fail courses (sometimes because they don’t show up much for class) and have to retake them; they switch majors and don’t realize that doing so means more years in school and more expenses.
- They are confused about financial aid, intimidated by financial aid staff and fear things will get worse if they ask for help.
- They miss classes because of family obligations, often caring for younger and older relatives.
- If they have health issues or injuries or disabilities, they do not ask for accommodations; they often simply do not realize they could ask.
This fall, two students in one of my classes ended the semester not as they had begun it — studying together for Latin quizzes — but as parents of a baby. After sending some frantic emails in October after realizing she was pregnant, the female student withdrew from the class. Her boyfriend struggled even to come to class and barely made it to the final exam.
Too often, I hear about former students working in retail jobs at Walmart, at the mall — jobs they did not need to attend college to have.
What Can We Do So Education Remains the “Great Equalizer”?
For all of these reasons, we need to rethink higher education for students who are the first in their families to attend college, especially at a time when college costs have risen so dramatically. We need to do a better job helping those who do not have the “advocacy edge” that the children of affluent parents do, as sociologist Annette Lareau describes the difference between middle-class and working-class students. As she noted in the New York Times, the former assume that ”the institution will respond to them” while the latter ”don’t experience that” and are therefore “vulnerable.”
I wish I had the answers to help all of my students graduate in four years and with majors that prepared them for fulfilling careers and/or graduate school. Educators have been studying the issue and, while they have not come up with ready solutions, they have pinpointed some issues:
- There is a tendency for lower-income students to “undermatch,” to choose a school that is local and not as academically challenging as a more selective one that is further away. As a result, students remain tied to family and personal obligations and do not have the benefit of a more competitive campus culture that might help them make the most of their abilities.
- Colleges and universities need to do a better job at recognizing that socioeconomic class plays as much of a role in campus diversity as do race, ethnicity, religion and gender, and create strategies to support such students.
I am not in an administrative position at my school but I try, as much as I might as a faculty member, to help students, often keeping in mind what I’ve learned from advocating for my teenage autistic son, Charlie, who has little speech. While most of my students do not have disabilities they do, like Charlie, have a lot of trouble knowing how and when to ask for help. I try to let students know they can ask for assistance.
Perhaps the first step colleges and universities need to take to better support lower-income students is to realize just this and let lower-income students know that there is nothing shameful in asking for help. Schools certainly want students to succeed and are there to support them — but they need to do a far better job communicating this message.
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