A Path to Success for Low-Income Students

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This week a group of 30 selective American colleges and universities, together with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute, announced a collaborative effort to expand access for low-income students. This effort—dubbed the American Talent Initiative—is part of a suite of initiatives that are attempting to help academically qualified students from lower-income families get improved access to elite universities.

The problem has been a stubborn one to solve, and has persisted despite numerous, well-meaning efforts. This is because high school grades and standardized test scores, which factor heavily into selective university admissions, are closely correlated with affluence. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation noted in a report earlier this year that the 193 universities with the most competitive admissions have made only 1 percentage point of progress in enrolling Pell recipients in more than a decade: from 16 percent of first-time, full-time students in 2000 to 17 percent in at 2013. The foundation called for a “poverty preference” in selective university admissions.

American higher education is made up a hundreds of diverse institutions, many of which are affordable and accessible to low-income students. So why does it matter that they are not attending elite universities in greater numbers? Both the American Talent Initiative and a separate, but similar, effort called the Coalition for College Access, Affordability, and Success are based upon a growing body of research that shows that students who attend colleges with higher graduation rates and student persistence are themselves more likely to graduate.

The research on this is compelling, and the Coalition has a web page that highlights several studies and news reports. A Georgetown University report in June reinforced research that has found that students of all groups who attend more rigorous universities with higher graduation rates are significantly more likely to graduate.

A 2014 College Board report summarized research that found students, particularly low-income students and underrepresented minorities, do not apply to enough “reach” schools, lowering their chances of getting into a better school. The report identified a number of barriers that prevent students from applying to and being admitted to more selective schools.

Tragically, this failure means that low-income students are ultimately less likely to graduate from college, more likely to be in debt, and less likely to get a great job that allows them to repay that debt.

Both the American Talent Initiative and the Coalition for College Access, Affordability, and Success are trying to tackle these barriers and ease the path for qualified, lower-income students into selective colleges and universities. One of the key factors for participation in these initiatives is that the member institutions have relatively high graduation rates. Not surprisingly, in both cases the visibility of these efforts has led to pressure from other schools to join up, and as a consequence both organizations have examined how to broaden their membership criteria without abandoning the central premise: that low-income students who attend a university with high student success rates will be more successful both in college and in life.

This is a rich topic, and a future blog post will examine the role of signaling to low-income and first-generation students in these widely publicized efforts.

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