When Johnny Can Read, But Can't Afford College

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This post was originally published on the Asset Building Program's blog, The Ladder.

For two years, I taught eighth grade at a high-needs middle school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, just a few miles from Washington, D.C. The student body was nearly 90% African American, and over half of students qualified for free and reduced price lunch. (That didn’t include the cafeteria food one principal often bought out-of-pocket for other hungry kids.) Math scores hovered around 33% proficiency, and reading around 65%. The statewide average is about 69% proficiency in math and 80% in reading.  Especially at the start of my teaching career, I struggled to motivate my classes in the face of classroom disruptions, lagging reading levels, and pressures on students with unstable home situations.

Unfortunately, these issues aren’t unique to Maryland. There is an active conversation about how to reduce the disparities in education quality between K-12 schools in high- and low- income neighborhoods. Programs like Teach For America, which placed me (and some 38,000 other young college graduates over the past twenty years) in low-performing schools, and Obama’s Race to the Top program, which provided funding to my school, aim to fix this problem. If change is going to come, we need to set high goals for students.

My mentors and supervisors at my teaching jobs urged me to link my students’ academic growth with success in life. I pushed the idea to my students that college would reward them for their hard work, bringing opportunities and, further down the line, potentially lucrative careers. However, as Jason DeParle, a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow, articulates in a recent New York Times piece, the path both to and through college to economic stability is often fraught with challenges particularly for lower-income students. For example, we see a widening socioeconomic gap in college attendance levels, graduation rates, and student loan burdens.

Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at New America, describes in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly the extent to which the higher education system is flawed, particularly along race and socioeconomic lines. He writes, “Nationwide, the majority of all black and Latino college students fail to graduate within six years.” This trend perpetuates lifelong inequities in employment opportunities and earning potential. As Willie Elliott, a Research Fellow with the Asset Building Program, noted recently, people with college degrees fared much better during the recent recession than those with just a high school degree.

Along the same lines, DeParle's article notes that "low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests.” These findings align with Elliott’s work on the mismatched relationship between student achievement and income level. DeParle uses the story of three best friends from Galveston, Texas to show how even the most promising students can find that “obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality” can be insurmountable.

Low-income students must come to grips with these obstacles, even once they’ve made it to college. For example, confusing and often unfair financial aid systems are particularly problematic for students coming to college with few familial resources to fall back on. Carey emphasizes that colleges must not only admit diverse bodies of students, but also provide services and financial aid programs that can sustain them all. The current system does not always succeed. As he explains, “black students are also more likely than other groups to default on student loans that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.” DeParle brings to life these financial constraints by telling the story of Angelica, who spent three years at an elite college and did not graduate. She was intellectually curious and driven, but for a variety of reasons, some personal and some structural, she became so burdened by debt that she couldn’t focus on academics. Now, she makes $8.50 per hour selling furniture and faces $61,000 in student debt for the degree she never completed.

Since the articles take on the higher education system from somewhat different angles, they are useful to read in tandem. Carey outlines possible reforms in light of the grim future for affirmative action, which is to be decided by the Supreme Court this year. He recommends that states give more resources to higher education, especially by supporting colleges that are graduating high numbers of students of color and reducing student loan levels.  DeParle illustrates the shortcomings of higher education at a personal level, interspersing narrative with facts about our education system.

Both articles question the idea of education as a means to eliminate class and race divisions. As the differences between the rich and the poor grow, how can students balance their ambitions for higher education with the financial realities and pitfalls currently inherent in the system? How can educators raise awareness of these egregious socioeconomic gaps while still teaching students to maintain high goals for themselves? One place to start is by teaching them how to best manage their debts, build assets, and advocate for their own financial stability. These are valuable life lessons for everyone but given the significant costs of a post-secondary education, they are especially consequential for lower-income students striving to reach and succeed in college.