How to keep promising low-income and first-gen college students from dropping out

This week, more than a dozen wealthy celebrity parents plead guilty to college bribery charges. But the most urgent higher education problem our society faces is not a handful of the super-wealthy paying their way into top schools. The more far-reaching problem is the fact that colleges are failing low-income students — even the best, brightest and most hard working among them. We need attention and policy efforts focused on solutions for this group. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 60 percent of the wealthiest college students will graduate.  But only 16 percent of low-income students will do so.  These lower rates hold true even for the most promising low-income students.

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For instance, in Dallas, the Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Magnet Center (TMC) serves mostly minority and low-income students with college-ready SAT and ACT scores — and we expect all of our students to attend college. Made up of six National Blue Ribbon Schools, TMC provides rigorous college preparation.  But while almost all graduates start college, more than a third have dropped out after the first two years. 

It isn’t academics getting in the way: TMC surveyed alumni who did not complete college, and all said they felt academically prepared. The No. 1 reason students dropped out was a lack of money and resources. Their parents did not want to, or have the ability to, take out student loans to cover the cost of tuition, room and board or books.  

The second reason students cited for not continuing with college was an inability to navigate college obstacles. For example, one student stated, “My housing wasn’t ready; I didn’t have anywhere to stay; my mother told me to come home.”

Another student said, “My financial aid had not been processed, and I didn’t have money to pay until it came in.  I could not enroll in my classes.” Other students returned home because they were homesick or encountered family issues.   

This is a solvable problem.  Forward-thinking programs have found that promising, hard-working students flourish when offered socio-emotional and financial support. This includes structures recognizing the needs of first generation and economically disadvantaged students. 

For instance, the 11 universities in the University Innovation Alliance, which includes University of Arizona, University of Texas at Austin and other schools, now produce nearly 30 percent more low-income bachelor degree graduates per year than they did when the alliance was founded in 2014. The alliance provides grants to juniors and seniors who could not register for the next semester because of unpaid bills. 

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Carolina Covenant program provides full services for low-income students that include financial assistance, a support network with faculty mentoring, peer counseling, academic and career workshops, and social events. It also offers workshops on time management, note-taking and financial literacy.

As part of UC Irvine’s American Talent Initiative, community college and non-traditional students receive extra support and resources to stem transfers (almost two out of three college students will attend more than one school before earning their bachelor’s degree.)

All of these efforts have shown great promise, but we need a nationwide policy push to advance such programs and offer more significant support.  When those structures are non-existent or unavailable, students are more likely to struggle and return home. 

Such programs and practices are already working. High schools across America like TMC are also implementing initiatives to improve college graduation rates for their alumni. However, if we want the college system to work for all our students, we need much more. 

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The good news is, there is some progress toward higher education reform. In March, members of the Trump administration unveiled their top reform priorities in the Higher Education Act, including the student loan debt crisis in America. The proposal has some welcome elements like supporting HBCUs and Pell grants for re-entering citizens. However, it does not include enough solutions for the millions of minority, first-generation, and low-income college students across the country.

Programs and initiatives like those above should be part of any truly effective overhaul of our system.  By increasing our focus on our lower-income and first-generation students, we can help them realize their American dream. If given the opportunity to graduate, the nation will prosper from a better educated, more diverse and more dynamic workforce.

Tiffany Huitt is executive director of magnet schools for Dallas Independent School District and a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @THuittDISD