Map to the Middle Class

OPINION: Three ways to help more low-income students get through college

The challenge of not knowing 'the unwritten rules of life'

More low-income students are getting into college than ever before. That’s the good news. The bad news? They’re not getting out, and those who do often have nowhere to go. 

Decades-long efforts to increase college access for low-income students have worked: as of 2016, the enrollment gap between low-income and wealthy students has narrowed to just 16 percentage points. However, graduation rates haven’t increased commensurately: College graduation rates for low-income students increased by only 3 percentage points, from 6 percent to 9 percent, between 1970 and 2015.

Why haven’t graduation rates grown with enrollment rates? Consider the various hurdles to college completion: financial obstacles, family obligations, confusing bureaucracies, academic preparation gaps, and even general changes in plans. These difficulties are scarcely addressed, though, because the conversation focuses on getting students into college, not seeing them through to degree completion or eventual job security. While there is no silver bullet that will solve the issue, there are steps that can move the needle beyond college access and toward college success.

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The College & Alumni Program (CAP), which will convene educational professionals from across the country at its first ever College Success Institute this May, found this can be accomplished by focusing on three critical elements: reducing debt incurred, limiting time spent in college, and focusing on the end-goal: what the student plans to do with a degree after graduation.

Many low-income students don’t have a financial safety net, and often their parents don’t have the financial literacy skills needed to navigate financial aid forms, calculate payments or create budgets. Put simply: money management is difficult and not often taught, especially when parents are living paycheck-to-paycheck themselves. As a result, many low-income students are left to try and figure out how to finance a college degree themselves. Quitting college due to payment issues often results from having no sustainable plan to finance their education from the beginning. If you weren’t taught budgeting skills at home or in school, where do you pick them up?

To minimize the risk of a student leaving college because of financial challenges, work must begin in high school. High school counselors can have a significant impact by educating students about what’s possible and helping them balance their lists of prospective colleges with affordable options: schools that have strong graduation rates, high freshmen retention rates and low average student debt.

Once on campus, students must continue their financial education. They can talk with staff at the financial aid office or tap into online resources, including organizations like uAspire and NerdWallet, and individual experts such as Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey, for assistance in financial planning.

With national in-state tuition and fees averaging $10,230 for public institutions and $35,830 for private ones, every extra year in college increases the likelihood that a student can no longer afford to attend. That additional year in college can often lead to more debt and less earnings.

The first challenge to finishing on-time is scheduling: some students don’t know how to organize their course load for success or know what classes to take that count toward their degrees. For example, many colleges define a full-time load as 12 credits per semester, but students typically need 15 units per term to graduate in four years. College advisors must play active roles in helping students manage their course loads so they are not hit with a “surprise semester” or a full fifth year.

Related: Data analysis reveals keys to student success

Other students face pressure to work while in school to support themselves and/or their families. In fact, about 40 percent of undergraduates work 30 or more hours a week, above the 25-hour threshold that research shows negatively affects academic performance. Thus, it’s important for college advisors to effectively counsel freshmen not to work part-time during their first term in college unless they absolutely must.

Second, after college, it’s time to get a job. But how? Many low-income students don’t receive guidance about entering a professional career. What’s an internship, and how do you get one? How do you write a cover letter? What’s an “informational interview”?

As an example, my colleague recently coached a college student whose only work experience was in a movie theater. In a mock job interview, the student said his favorite part of the job was free popcorn. If he’d said that in a real interview, he probably wouldn’t get the job. But no one had talked to him about the interview process before, and he didn’t have any professional role models. It wasn’t the student’s fault that he didn’t know how to answer the question appropriately.

By emphasizing how to make the most of students’ three summers during college and key times to learn outside the classroom, advisors can help students acquire the skills necessary for career placement. To leverage this time wisely, college advisors should help students visualize their futures. What is their “dream” job? Then, they can help students research what that might look like in the real world and plan how to build the skills necessary to earn a place in the field. Campus resources, such as the career center, or online resources like LinkedIn (and alumni networks) can be utilized to help low-income students gain exposure to the career search process and potential professional mentors.

Finally, for low-income students, college success is often hindered by a lack of exposure. When you don’t know there’s a financial system, you can’t maneuver within it. When you don’t know there’s a professional development pathway, you can’t get on it. If you knew better, you’d do better. As adults, we must fill in the blanks and help students learn the unwritten rules of life during and after college.

This story about college completion for low-income students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Melissa Fries is an expert in college access, preparation and success for low-income and historically underrepresented students. As executive director of CAP — a program of the Making Waves Foundation — Fries empowers nearly 600 students to complete their college degrees in a timely manner with minimal debt.

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Melissa Fries

Melissa Fries is a leading expert in college access, preparation, and success for low-income and historically-underrepresented students. As the Executive Director of CAP—a program of… See Archive

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