Educational Organizations That Are Preparing Lower-Income Students for College

Educational Organizations That Prepare Lower-Income Students for College

According to the 2016 High School Benchmarks Report by the National Student Clearinghouse, which surveyed more than 5 million graduates, students from lower-income families were far less likely to enroll in college immediately after graduation and complete a degree within four years compared to their peers from higher-income backgrounds. In fact, only 54 percent of low-income students enrolled right away (compared to 69 percent of their higher-income peers) and only 24 percent completed a degree within four years (compared to 45 percent of other students). Although schools, organizations, and the federal government are taking action to reduce this disparity, there is still much more work to be done.


Low-income children in America

Nationwide, 1 in 5 children under the age of 18 live at or below the federal poverty threshold, and research suggests that many families require an income of double this threshold to provide for basic needs. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the "low-income" designation includes both the poor and the near poor (at 100 percent to 199 percent of the federal poverty threshold). Taking both groups into account, approximately 43 percent of students are from low-income families across the United States.


Past initiatives to increase access to college

In a 2014 executive memo titled Increasing College Opportunities for Low-Income Students, former President Obama stated:

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of low-income students face barriers to college access and success. Low-income students often lack the guidance and support they need to prepare for college, apply to the best-fit schools, apply for financial aid, enroll and persist in their studies, and ultimately graduate. As a result, large gaps remain in educational achievement between students from low-income families and their high-income peers.”

This led to a major administrative push to boost the college graduation rate, which included a significant increase in federal funding for grants and financial aid. However, data from recent years shows that increased funding is not the only answer to paving the way for more students from low-income backgrounds to enroll in and complete college.

Funding and the need for other assistance

Between 2008 and 2012, the national high school graduation rate increased from 75 percent to 81 percent. However, during that same period, U.S. Census Bureau data indicated a dramatic decrease in the percentage of low-income students who enrolled in higher education immediately after graduation, from 56 percent to 46 percent. This phenomenon occurred at a time when federal funding for post-secondary education was increased, indicating that gaps still exist in the process of helping students get to college, not just pay for it.

Although funding will always remain an important part of college success rates, in recent years, schools, organization, and the government have been focusing on how to better prepare students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Programming often falls into one of three categories:

  • Modeling and teaching necessary skills

  • Providing opportunities and resources

  • Increasing access to technology

By demonstrating and teaching how to successfully apply for and excel in college, decreasing barriers to testing and application resources, and providing tools to enhance students' academic achievement, countless organizations are finding ways to make college more accessible to low-income students that go beyond providing financial aid. Here are a few programs dedicated to increasing college accessibility for low-income students from each of the above categories:

  • Modeling and teaching necessary skills

    To increase confidence and ability to access high-quality college education, Delaware College Scholars runs a three-week summer program for 40 select students from Delaware school districts. The scholars attend for three consecutive summers between 10th and 12th grade, and study for free at St. Andrew's School. Students also engage in college tours, take SAT preparation workshops, fill out applications, and learn about financial aid. The program aims to increase the number of highly qualified low-income students who enroll in and attend college, and over the past four years, 100 percent of program graduates have enrolled. This is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that 25 percent of Delaware's highly qualified low-income students (those with SAT scores over 1550) do not enroll in college at all.

  • Providing opportunities and resources

    The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative formed a partnership with The College Board to increase access to standardized testing and college preparation activities for low-income students and students from rural school districts. Highlights of the program include increasing students' access to the PSATs—which provide personalized recommendations to each student based on scores—as well as making online SAT practice more readily available, and working toward the goal of bringing AP Computer Science Principles to every school district in the country.

    The SATs and other standardized tests are an important part of the college application process, and data shows a consistent relationship between mean scores and income. In fact, SAT data from the 2016 College Board exams demonstrates a "pure" slope of mean scores from lowest income to highest, meaning that scores steadily decrease from highest to lowest family income.

  • Increasing access to technology

    Large-scale initiatives to increase access to technology quite literally put tools into the hands of low-income students. The Sprint 1 Million Project, which seeks to provide 180,000 high school students with digital technology, is just one example of such an effort. The aim of this program is to decrease the homework gap that occurs when students are unable to access the internet outside of a school setting, and are therefore unable to maintain the same level of academic progress and advancement as their peers. The program works to provide a smartphone, tablet or hotspot device—as well as free wireless service—to students at select schools in 30 states.

Although closing the college education gap for students from low-income backgrounds is a significant challenge that will continue to require a multi-pronged, long-term approach, it is encouraging to see organizations taking concrete action to increase access and support.

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