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Broken Ladder: Higher Ed’s Role in Social Mobility

Broken ladder centered

Frustration with the high cost of college and the rising number of students saddled with debt has more Americans asking, Is a college degree worth it? That question is especially momentous as the country faces deepening socioeconomic divisions.

One estimate says two-thirds of new job openings require education beyond high school. Yet less than 15 percent of students from the lowest socioeconomic bracket earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In this occasional series, undertaken with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Chronicle examines what colleges and universities can do to change that, and what’s standing in their way.

Ju’Juan Day (left) was a college junior when Ned Laff asked what he we really interested in. “Nobody at the college had asked me that -- ever,” says Day.

A Crusade Against Terrible Advising

Ju’Juan Day was a junior in college before an adviser asked him what he was really interested in. Especially for low-income and first-generation students, inquisitive and creative advising could be the key to successful careers and fulfilling lives — and It could save higher education in the process. But colleges fail at it again and again.

What needs to change? Read more about the crusade for better advising.


Students, Interrupted

This summer, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing thousands of students to reconsider their college plans. Isaiah Delgado has already decided: Even though the first-generation student proved he could keep up with his more privileged peers, and graduated summa cum laude from the International Baccalaureate program, he has cancelled his plans to attend the University of Central Florida, where he was going to study journalism. He’s worried that his classes there would wind up online, and says it doesn’t make sense to “pay Orlando prices if I’m going to wind up at my house still.”

As Covid-19 cases spike in his state, Delgado plans to stay home and take classes at the nearby College of Central Florida. It will cost him a third of what the university would. Still, he says it hurts to “know I’m going to stay local at the college I didn’t need to do all the fancy things for.” He wanted to set an example for his siblings.

If even half the high-school graduates who say they’re reconsidering a four-year college decide to postpone it, or switch to a two-year institution, the repercussions will reverberate across the economy, affecting them, their families, and institutions nationwide. What are colleges doing to persuade them to come? Learn more.

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Why Covid-19 Could Force Colleges to Fix Their Transfer Problems

Not so long ago, most college students’ decisions weren’t shaped by fears of financial crisis or losing a loved one to unexpected illness. But under the looming threat of coronavirus, many students are rethinking their college choices.

As their families face a sudden loss of income, undergraduates at out-of-state or private institutions are taking another look at less-expensive public regional colleges and community colleges where they can continue their studies closer to home. A flood of transfers is even more likely if courses remain mostly online.

But every pivot in a student’s education path opens up cracks where credits can fall through, lowering the likelihood they’ll complete a degree. At the same time, the stakes have never been higher for colleges to attract and retain their students. Could the pandemic finally force repairs to the transfer system? Read more.

Digital Divide

Distanced Learning

Across the Anacostia River from Capitol Hill, in a neighborhood often overlooked by the rest of Washington, DC, the students of Thurgood Marshall Academy are trying to keep up with their studies. As Covid-19 and the city’s quarantine orders persist, they’re stuck at home – often with a weak Wi-Fi connection, or none at all.

“Wi-Fi is not at the top of your list of needs,” says their college counselor, Sanjay Mitchell, “when you’ve got to figure out how to eat and keep the lights on.”

The pandemic is revealing the breadth of education’s digital divide. But many low-income students face challenges that go well beyond a lack of computers and connectivity. Even a strong wireless signal is a poor substitute for all the support structures that schools provided. Read more about how Mitchell is trying to keep his students connected.

Elizabeth Ouanemalay, 18 and a freshman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, meets a photographer outside her dorm on the university campus during the Corona Virus shutdown. Spending much of the last month alone, in her room studying, like most college students, she is taking her courses on line with the help of a laptop computer. Unlike most students throughout the country, she is unable to travel home to California during the pandemic. Recently, while in the middle of her studies she was photographed in her PJ’s during class time. photography by Bradley E. Clift.  all rights reserved. Elizabeth Ouanemalay, 18 and a freshman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. LOTS OF EMPTY SPACE. Ouanemalay spends much of the last month alone, in her room studying, like most college students, however, she is one of only a few hundred students left on campus.  When she does venture out of the dorm, she wonders the empty, or near empty Quad or Courtyard on campus on her way to the food service center.  Upon arrival, she puts on a surgical mask, gloves and a thick scarf for protect from the deadly virus. She also maintains at least 8 feet from any colleague or student.  photography by Bradley E. Clift.

Covid-19 Is a Pivotal Moment for Struggling Students. Can Colleges Step Up?

Elizabeth Ouanemalay couldn’t afford to leave her campus when it sent students home to protect them from the coronavirus. But what happens this semester may determine whether she’ll have to leave Wesleyan for good.

The Wesleyan University freshman is a first-generation student from a low-income family, who spent part of high school living in a car. The replacement of residential learning with online education presents her with more than just a rough patch. It is a time of extraordinary stress.
Colleges that have raised graduation rates for low-income students like Ouanemalay have often relied on wraparound services: care for their financial and mental health, and a network of support with cohorts, early interventions, and extra counseling. A “high touch” learning environment, as many advocates call it.

But how do you do high touch in what has suddenly become a “no touch” world? Read more here.


How to Make College A Better Bet

College administrators, policy makers, and foundations are trying to bring more low-income students to college and help them succeed. Are they putting efforts and resources where they’ll make the most difference? Lists of best practices don’t often include the simple communication and guidance that could set students on the right path. Attention to the first-generation population misses the question of why colleges don’t better serve working parents.

To explore how to lift more people’s prospects, The Chronicle brought together a campus leader, a public official, a researcher, and a college counselor. We discussed structural inequalities, expectations of students and their motivation to enroll in college, and the kind of support they actually need.

Read and watch excerpts from our conversation.

The Barriers to Mobility

The Barriers to Mobility

For decades, American higher education has made a promise to low-income students: If you earn a degree, you can reach the middle class. But multiple barriers make that offer practically unreachable for those who need it most.

To understand how we got here, we need to look back to a time when the idea of mobility via a college degree became part of the American Dream, and then how that dream curdled, and what, if anything, higher education can do to fulfill its promise of opportunity.

Barriers Sidebars

How 3 Colleges Make Mobility a Reality

Helping students climb the economic ladder is hard, complicated work. No one approach works for all students; no one strategy works for all colleges.

But data show that a few higher-education institutions are consistently successful at giving many undergraduates from low-income families a solid chance at financial security and a better life.

Here we examine three institutions — a large Midwestern public university, a historically black college, and a career-focused nautical academy — and how they provide students with “intrusive” assistance, job readiness, and the essential confidence that, yes, despite the many obstacles, they can succeed.

Broken Ladder is a yearlong project to examine the role that higher education plays in social mobility. It is supported by a grant of $149,994 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has no role in our editorial decision-making.

Interested in sharing your ideas with us? Fill out our survey to tell us what questions we should explore.

(Correction, 1/6/2020, 9:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the grant amount as $199,994. The article has been updated.)