Recent research shows that there is a gap in academic achievement between lower- and upper-class students by as much as three to four years of schooling. Being so far behind makes it difficult to get into to college, but even for those who do make it to college, often they are not adequately prepared to complete their degree.
Currently, only four out of ten lower-income students who enter college are graduating within six years. What’s more, few additional students graduate after six years; according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only an additional 6.1 percent of all students entering college in 2009 graduated within eight years. Dropping out and being saddled with student loan debt makes it that much more difficult for these students to climb up the income ladder and access better-paying jobs that can help break cycles of poverty.
Here’s the data for first-time students in Missouri who started college full-time in the fall of 2011, per the Department of Education:
· 56.7 percent of those students graduated within six years, which is lower than the national average of 60.4 percent.
· Students from the same group receiving Pell Grants from the federal government—most of which have family incomes below $30,000—have a six-year graduation rate in Missouri of only 40.6 percent, while students not receiving Pell Grants or a subsidized loan graduated at a rate of 68.3 percent.
These are startling numbers for Missouri. Not only are we behind the national average in terms of college completion, but a large number of those who fail to graduate appear to be low-income students. Those are exactly the kind of students who are least equipped to handle the burden of high student debt, especially without the benefit of a degree.
A 2013 report from the Department of Education estimated that in 2009 students who did not complete their degree had on average $9,300 of debt if they attended a public 4-year school and $10,400 if they attended a private, non-profit 4-year school. More recent data from Debt by Degree breaks down student loan debt by Pell status and individual schools; it showed Pell recipients attending Mizzou average $19,328 in federal loans.
Addressing the degree achievement gap must start at the K-12 level and, as I discussed before, competition through choice is necessary if we want better outcomes for low-income kids. But in the meantime, making changes at the college level can help lower-income students getting ready to go to college now or that are already there.
In "Creating Pathways for Self-Sufficiency," I discuss a few ways colleges can boost graduation rates among low-income students. Retention grants or emergency scholarships can fill gaps in financial aid for low-income students who are on track to graduate but would otherwise have to drop out due to lack of funds. Providing supports like mentorships and enrollment or financial aid checklists have been effective in helping first generation college students be prepared.
Not included in my essay but also worth noting is data-based guidance counseling. Georgia State University’s predictive analytics system has helped students from all economic backgrounds graduate at higher rates by connecting students struggling academically with tutors sooner rather than later and making sure students are not taking unnecessary classes that cost extra time and money.
As taxpayers, we invest too many public dollars in education at every level to have results like these. Isn’t it time to move towards a system that better serves students of all economic backgrounds and ensures that those who go to college leave with a degree?