Cost Bars the Way to College
Poverty does not keep "gifted and motivated" young people from college, writes Jay Mathews. They get scholarships. Instead, he argues, it is poor schooling that prevents low-income students from realizing their gifts or preparing for college.
I think Mathews gets it wrong.
For the moment, let's leave aside the multiple causes, both within and beyond schools, of low-income students' poor academic performance. Mathews seems a bit blasé about the impact of financial impediments to college.
Consider, for example, the lot of strong, if not stellar, students from low- and medium-income families. No, they're not the stand-out stars Mathews is writing about. But that's the point. There is troubling evidence that low- and medium-income students of average accomplishments are not nearly as likely to attend college as their wealthier peers are. Their success is a critical measure of opportunity.
High-income students who perform poorly on eighth-grade mathematics tests are about as likely to complete college as low-income students who perform in the highest quartile. Sure, the low-income students may lose ground in high school, but does that explain the entire difference?
Not by a long shot, according 2008 study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Researchers found that even students with solid grade point averages (3.0 or higher) who had taken at least one "capstone" mathematics course (trig, pre-calculus or calculus) did not enroll in college, citing money as the largest barrier.
The high cost of college may even stifle students' academic motivation. In a recent study, Chicago seventh graders who saw cost as an impediment to college reported spending less time on homework than their more optimistic peers did.
So there are all sorts of barriers to college attendance--educational, social and economic. By giving economic reasons short shrift, Mathews lets policymakers off the hook. Policies and practices that address all of these factors together are most likely to close gaps in college attendance and graduation. Say Yes to Education, an initiative that gives low-income students comprehensive supports including college scholarships, has dramatically narrowed college graduation gaps in communities where it operates. This important work doesn't get nearly enough attention.
The last thing we need to do now is assume things will just sort themselves out for students who are qualified for college.
By the way...
Mathews invites readers to send him stories of high-achieving students kept from college because of money. Do you know of any? If so, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joanne Jacobs points out that very qualified undocumented students are often ineligible for college scholarships. A poignant example: the four brilliant undocumented Phoenix high school students who beat MIT students in the national underwater robotics competition. As children of migrant workers, they faced very slim odds of going to college.
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