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Education Should Dismantle Barriers, Not Fortify Them

By Jay Sherwin

A recent New York Times story by Jason DeParle offers a moving portrait of three smart and ambitious young women, friends from Galveston, Texas, with dreams of a better life. All three enrolled in college but, five years later, none has graduated. All three are back in Galveston, working, paying off their debts and no doubt wondering how things might have turned out differently.

In telling the stories of these three women, DeParle makes this powerful statement about contemporary American life: “Education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.” He’s right, and it’s a deeply disturbing trend.

Thirty years ago, 19 percent of students from the poorest quartile of American families enrolled in four-year colleges. That number has increased to 29 percent. But in the same time, the number of students from the richest quartile entering college has increased from 58 percent to 80 percent. The difference in college graduation rates is equally dramatic: 9 percent of poor students complete college, compared to 54 percent of rich students.

Poverty prevents many young people from pursuing and persisting in higher education, but poverty is only part of the explanation. Other social and structural factors conspire to keep even high achieving low income students from learning their way into the middle class.

Two recently published studies illustrate this point.

An analysis by Harvard’s Center on Education Policy Research found that many low income high school students with strong academic potential did not pursue higher education or enrolled in less-selective colleges or community colleges, where they are much less likely to earn a diploma than students who attend more academically demanding institutions.

A second recent study, conducted by Christopher Avery of Harvard and Caroline Hoxby of Stanford, found that high-achieving, low income students often fail to apply to college because they lack the information and encouragement that more privileged students receive. Few of these students have mentors or role models who have successfully pursued higher education. Most attend high schools with little or no college advising.

At Informing Change, we work with foundations and other clients that are deeply invested in educational opportunity, and we are part of a national conversation about how to help under-represented students reach college and succeed there. There are some positive trends and signs of change, but we need more programs to help low-income high school students make well-informed college choices and more resources to help those students persist and graduate.

The three young women from Galveston all faced a variety of academic, social and personal challenges— no single strategy or intervention would have helped all of them to succeed. But something bigger is broken. When poor students don’t receive the support, advice or academic foundation they need, educational opportunity is a false promise. In a world where achievement is the gateway to social mobility, we must find ways for our educational system to tear down the barriers to equality instead of fortifying them.