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To Raise Graduation Rates, Focus on Poor and Working Class Kids

Ever since President Obama announced the inspiring and audacious goal of raising American college completion to the highest rate in the world by 2020, commentators have offered a variety of solutions—from increasing online learning, to expanding certificate and apprenticeship programs, to funding institutions based on outcomes. But according to a compelling new report by Andrew Howard Nichols of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, none of these approaches will work unless policymakers also take targeted steps to directly address income-based inequality. (Full disclosure: I sit on the Pell Institute’s Advisory Board.)

The report, Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal, makes a very powerful case that income inequality is at the center of our failure to keep pace with other countries on college completion. Over the last 30 years, bachelor’s degree attainment by age 24 in the U.S. has skyrocketed by 45 percent for those in the top income quartile, while for those in the bottom income quartile, the rate has increased just 2 percent, according to data in the report from researcher Tom Mortenson.

By age 24, students from the bottom half of the distribution have a 12.0 percent chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree, while those in the top economic half have a 58.8 percent chance. If we could raise everyone to the level of attainment met by those in the top economic half, we would far outpace other countries in bachelor degree attainment, the report notes.

How can we help close the gap between income groups? The report makes several recommendations, including defending Pell Grant funding, and monitoring income-based disparities the way that race-based disparities are currently highlighted. A few of the proposals are particularly noteworthy:

* One calls for addressing the increasing economic segregation between two-year and for-profit colleges on the one hand and four-year non-profit institutions on the other. Research finds that students from the bottom economic half are increasingly channeled into community colleges. This is problematic, the report notes: “If we are expected to reach the 2020 goal, low-income and working-class students cannot be primarily tracked to two-year and for-profit institutions, where attendance drastically reduces the likelihood of degree attainment, especially bachelor’s degree attainment.”

This recommendation would seem to suggest affirmative efforts—perhaps even affirmative action in admissions—to enable striving low-income students to attend four-year non-profit institutions. As I’ve noted elsewhere, these efforts might be complemented by initiatives to attract more students from the upper-income half to community colleges through honors and beefed-up transfer programs. This socioeconomic integration of community colleges could increase the political and social capital of two-year institutions, which may improve outcomes for everyone in the sector.

* A second proposal calls for improving K-12 education, particularly for low-income students, by targeting greater financial resources to those most in need. This idea makes sense as far as it goes, but doesn’t go far enough. As I noted in a panel discussion earlier today about the report, the valuable “resources” that drive school quality include not only dollars for teachers and classroom equipment, but also classmates who are academically engaged and expect to go on to college; parents who volunteer in class and know how to hold school officials accountable; and high quality teachers with high expectations. Research has long found that separate institutions for rich and poor, even when equally funded, provide very different qualities of education. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, a 2010 Century Foundation study found that low-income students randomly assigned to public housing units in low-poverty neighborhoods and given access to low-poverty schools performed far better than low-income students who attended higher poverty schools with $2,000 extra spent per pupil.

* A third proposal calls for beefing up support programs, like TRIO and GEAR UP, which leverage the effectiveness of Pell Grants by helping identify promising low-income students early on; helping them apply to college; and supporting them once in college. As Arthur Hauptman and Michael Timpane have noted, there is an enormous imbalance between the tiny amount of money devoted to TRIO and GEAR UP compared to Pell. Support programs should be expanded as a way of ensuring that Pell grants are well spent.

Most importantly, in its relentless focus on low-income and working-class students, the Pell Institute report provides the only credible path for hoping to meet President Obama’s 60-percent college-completion goal in the next decade. Claudia Golden and Lawrence Katz point out in The Race Between Education and Technology that throughout much of our history, the U.S. out-educated other nations in part by providing schooling to women before other countries did. To regain pre-eminence, we now have to also do a much better job of educating the bottom economic half.

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