The College Degree Equation; Solving for Low Income

“I came to realize that, in every step along the way, we had to do more because we had less.” This quote is from an Op-Ed in the New York Times this week called The Implicit Punishment of Daring to Go to College When Poor by Enoch Jemmott, a young man from a low-income background now attending Queens College.  He has a lot to say about the struggles first-generation college students face trying to get to and through higher education and emerge with a degree.  The recent College Admissions scandal only highlights a problem we have known about for decades – education is not an even playing field.   It never has been.  The ideal of a meritocracy – where one’s success is solely determined by one’s own creativity, hard work, and determination – remains elusive.  In fact, we may be further away from achieving that ideal than ever before.

A recent Georgetown University study from the Center on Education and the Workforce called America’s Divided Recovery found that of all the new jobs created in the US since the 2007 recession, the overwhelming majority required a Bachelor’s degree or higher.  Since 2007, jobs requiring only a high school education or less dropped by over 5.5 million; jobs requiring an Associates degree or some college (including postsecondary certificate programs) grew by a net 1.3 million; jobs requiring a Bachelor’s degree or higher grew by 8.6 million.

That’s why college prep is Cristo Rey St. Martin’s chosen niche.   Statistically, the most jobs, the better paying jobs, and the areas of most job growth are reserved for individuals with Bachelors degrees or higher.  Yes, there are other pathways like trade schools or certificate programs or coding that might result in decent jobs with decent wages.  But let’s be clear: there are seven times the number of jobs for those with a BA or BS degree than there are for those with an Associates degree, some college, or a professional certificate.  That’s why I cringe when some people suggest college isn’t for everyone.  Most of the time, individuals touting other pathways for other people have enjoyed the benefits of a college education for themselves and are sending their own children to college as well.  Some are even willing to pay millions of dollars and behave unethically to do it.

Another Op-Ed from this week in Forbes called College Isn’t for Whom? by Jeanne Allen observes that, “creating different pathways for students requires that some person or institution has the qualifications to decide who gets directed to what track and when.”  I certainly do not want to claim I am qualified to make these life-altering decisions for someone else.

Why not let students make the choice for themselves? The question assumes that all students have the choice – our ideal of meritocracy assumes they do, but our reality is far different.  Many students are not given a choice and the overwhelming majority of those students are from low-income communities.  Who believes that the educational opportunities even before college are an even playing field?  I drove up to school on Sheridan Road the other day and that drive demonstrates the spectrum of opportunities created by income level.  Do students living on Sheridan Road in Waukegan or North Chicago have access to the same quality schools as students living on Sheridan Road in Lake Forest, Glencoe, Kenilworth, Winnetka, or even Evanston?  How about summer activities, groceries, and healthcare?

The problem remains that there are disproportionately fewer low-income students earning Bachelor degrees than higher income students.  According to yet another recent study buy the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education, 58% of students from families in the highest quartile of income earn Bachelor degrees compared to only 11% of students from families in the lowest quartile of income.  Five times as many students from higher-income families earn degrees than students from low-income families.  It is not because higher income students are more gifted.  They simply have more options, greater access to quality education before college, and entrée to people with knowledge and insight into the process.

Our system of higher education favors the wealthy and that is a problem.

The problem extends far beyond being able to afford tuition.  The current system of higher education has institutional bias built-in.  There is a significant positive correlation between higher SAT and ACT test scores and students from higher income backgrounds yet many colleges still use test scores in determining admission.  Parents with resources can afford test preparation services and tutoring.  Higher income parents have navigated higher education themselves and can help with applications, personal statements and FASFA forms. Low-income students are flying solo.

Once a low-income student actually gets into college, the challenges do not end.  One of our students was accepted to an elite college on the east coast with a full-tuition scholarship.  The student was still expected to find money for books and incidentals.  With all available funds going towards those expenses, it was unrealistic to think of affording transportation costs to come home for Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately, the college traditionally shuts down for that holiday and for all holidays – including closing its food service and dormitories.  A full scholarship seemed to say the university wanted that student but the realities of shutting down campus over the holidays and shutting out that student from room and board says loud and clear to that student, “you don’t belong.”

Students with degrees benefit by having more job options open to them when they graduate. The disparity in degree attainment mirrors the growing disparity of wealth in the U.S. – the rich are getting richer and not necessarily because they merit it.  For low-income students, getting that same college degree means overcoming more challenges and working harder than their higher-income peers.  It takes grit, perseverance, determination, and a lot of luck.

At CRSM, we are trying to take income out of the degree-attainment equation.  We are doing everything within our power to give our students similar opportunities to their peers farther south on Sheridan Road.  Merit works when the playing field is level.  CRSM alumni are graduating college at rates similar to students in the highest quartile of income.  Our recent analysis indicates that CRSM alumni are earning more than half of all the new Bachelors degrees in North Chicago and Waukegan despite that fact that our school represents 1/13th of the high school population in these communities.  Given the right opportunities, all students can choose to become good students, good workers, and good citizens.  With your help and support, CRSM provides such a choice.  Thank you!