Access is only the first hurdle

This profile, of a woman who was part of an early program designed to guarantee college tuition to low-income high school students who managed to graduate, raises important issues of the kinds of barriers that students must overcome.

For Ms. Warren, as for many low-income students, the burden of growing up poor was too heavy for even the offer of a free ride to college or the support of a dedicated adviser to counter. In spite of the numerous college access programs like “I Have a Dream,” poverty remains the single largest determinant of whether a framed college degree will hang on the wall.

Six-year bachelor’s degree completion rates for students coming from poverty are lower today than they were in the 1970s, according to data from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education. In 2012,51 percent of low-income high school students enrolled in college in the fall after graduation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared with 81 percent of students in the top third of the income scale.

“It’s hard not to ask, are these programs working?” said Rebecca A. Maynard, university trustee professor of education and social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Though certain college access programs improve outcomes, in 2012 just 8.3 percent of students in the bottom economic quartile graduated from a four-year college (by age 24), compared with 73 percent of those in the top quartile, according to the Pell Institute.

One important, unanticipated, consequence of the “I Have a Dream” program, however, was the success rate of the children of those who were enrolled in the program. Even those who did not themselves complete college influenced their children to head towards higher education. And at least a few of those who were not able to manage college fresh out of high school have returned later in life to work towards degrees.

All of this suggests that, perhaps more than anything else, comprehensive mentoring may be one of the most important factors in predicting the success of low-income students in college. Even with scholarships and acceptance letters in hand, such students find it difficult to leave home, family, community; they are uncertain about how to do college; they need consistent help negotiating the pressures that affect not simply time- or money-management but also their senses of self.

Author: Andrea Kaston Tange

Andrea Kaston Tange is professor of Victorian literature and culture at Eastern Michigan University, Past President and Treasurer of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and editor of the *Journal of Narrative Theory*.