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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Travis Reginal
March 14, 2017
According to a 2015 study by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education and the Penn Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, only nine percent of those who are born in the bottom income quartile will graduate with a college degree, with some estimates as low as six percent. In his book Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide, Peter Sacks argues the number has been fixed at six percent since 1970. Even lower is the percentage of low income students that attend elite universities according to a Jack Kent Cooke report that notes low income students make up three percent of the enrollment at the most selective colleges, while wealthy students made up 72 percent.
Even when low income students excel in school, they are still less likely to attend college than low achieving wealthy students. There are fewer low income students at these schools than there would be if the high achieving low income students applied to selective schools matching their skills. When low income students do attend higher supplemental educational services schools there appear to be some inherent drawbacks. These drawbacks include students feeling like social outcasts. Low income students benefit the most by attending elite institutions.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having wealthy students in attendance. There is a tension as universities benefit from students that have families that can pay most, if not all of, their tuition. The average family at Yale is upper-middle class. That is not close to what the background of the average American. The overrepresentation of the wealthy in universities creates a false notion that most high-achieving students are wealthy. It is important to remember first-generation college students represent a diverse group of students along race and geographic location.
Higher education administrators have increasingly taken steps to do more outreach to low income students. By leveraging alumni from underserved areas, partnering with organizations such as Matriculate and strengthening their ties with Questbridge, some universities are starting to increase the number of Pell Grant eligible students admitted. However, the problem begins when students enroll and the institutional support is not there. They feel they have been cheated or lied to when they find themselves facing financial hardship
In my scan of the field and literature, there are a few actionable items college professors and administrators can take to better support first generation, low income college students:
Poverty is the most insistent opponent. Let us not trip our students who have run such a hard race by not giving them the right gear to compete at the highest levels. With the ancient doors to these institutions opening to a more diverse student body, we must ensure there are not additional locks awaiting our students.
Author: Travis Reginal is a research assistant at the Urban Institute where he conducts criminal justice research. He is a graduate of Yale University where he studied sociology and education studies. Travis has written and spoken on the matter of disadvantaged students attending elite institutions for a number of outlets such as the New York Times, NBC News, and American RadioWorks.