According to the Pathways to College Network’s 2004 report A Shared Agenda: A Leadership Challenge to Improve College Access and Success, children from families in the top income quartile in the US are five times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 as are children from the bottom income quartile.
This so-called “achievement gap” in education may be the most powerful barrier to economic and social success faced by disadvantaged groups in the USA today. The costs to our society are deep and wide in terms of lost income, under- and unemployment, workforce readiness, family dysfunction, and continuing the cycle of poverty. Students with parents who did not attend college are significantly less likely to attend college themselves.
The disparity, of course, starts long before the college years. For the last 35 years there has been a consistent approximate thirty point gap in high school graduation rates between the highest income quartile of students and the lowest.
In our current economy, however, new ways to close this gap must be found that do not rely solely on increases in scholarship and loan funds to secure access to college. Rather we must identify creative strategies which bring together the knowledge and resources of all the key players in students’ educational lives to ensure access to and success in college.
The good news is that traditionally underserved students are increasingly being recognized as “better than their numbers.” With the help and support of countless college access organizations throughout the country, a growing number of low-income and first generation students are being encouraged to apply to college and, when they apply, they are being accepted.
Enrollment, however, is only the start. Many students from underserved populations require academic, social and financial supports in order to thrive in a college environment. Access programs partner with at-risk students until they arrive on campus, but all too often have no further role. Students can find it difficult to locate and make the best use of the college resources they need. As more and more students from traditionally underserved groups enroll in college, we must put in place the right set of academic, social and financial supports to see these students through to graduation.
The key is providing both access to and the right set of supports in college. Many at-risk students enroll in public two- and four-year colleges. Public colleges play an important role in higher education, but they are often not equipped to address the challenges facing those students who are most likely to drop out before graduation. In order to complete a four-year degree and move on to graduate school or into the workforce, students must be fully integrated into the academic and social world that is college. Colleges that want to reach traditionally underserved populations and have them persist to graduation must provide an environment that fosters deep learning, social integration, and self efficacy.
College Access and College Success
Until recently, efforts to assist underserved students have focused primarily on either access or success. Access programs in local high schools and communities are doing inspirational work preparing at-risk students to see college as an option. They have also been remarkably effective in helping them apply to and be accepted by colleges. These programs provide academic support for high school studies, college choice information, financial aid counseling, assistance with applications, sponsor college visits and even encourage family involvement in order to gain acceptance letters for the students they work with. Most college access organizations have little or no contact, though, with these students or their colleges once students matriculate.
Research conducted by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education identified four common characteristics of colleges that successfully meet the needs of low-income students:
- A personalized education experience;
- A commitment to undergraduate education;
A sense of shared community; and
An institutional culture that promotes success.
A Lumina Foundation report described such institutions in greater detail, citing the following attributes of colleges that promote persistence and graduation of traditionally underserved student populations:
- A powerful sense of institutional purpose, known as “mission;”
Strong, reciprocal community connections;
Truly individualized learning in an environment in which each student is known well;
Student involvement in their own learning;
Creativity but tough-mindedness in financing;
Utilization of strategic planning; and
- Commitment to liberal education which fosters personal, academic and professional excellence in all students and a conviction that the loftiest educational aspirations are also the most practical.
Small, private colleges—especially working collectively—are in a unique position to provide this type of environment for at-risk students.