Why aren’t more low-income students reaching college graduation?

We often hear inspiring stories about disadvantaged students who overcame all the odds to graduate from college and embark on a successful career. They lift up their families, their siblings who follow in their footsteps, their communities that begin building pathways out of poverty. A college degree can create a lifetime of new opportunity for a graduate and far-reaching impact beyond. But unfortunately, this story is all too exceptional.

Out of 100 ninth graders, only 18 of them will go on to complete a degree within six years of high school graduation, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. There are countless students who overcome tremendous adversity every step of the way, only to drop out of college without a degree in hand. There is more we can do to support these students, to turn the exception into the rule.

There’s no getting around it – the cost of college is a major issue impacting the journey to a degree. For a student who is struggling to make ends meet, it can be difficult to focus on school.  But the fact is, not every challenge a student faces through college will be reflected in their bank account.

Consider the need to balance family responsibilities and keep up with rigorous coursework, perhaps while living away from home for the first time. The mounting pressures facing college students can often lead to extreme stress and anxiety. Meaningful support through college starts with recognizing the whole student, and that goes far beyond affordability.

Supporting the whole student

Providing holistic support for the college experience isn’t just great in theory. Look at success stories like the City University of New York, where the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) have nearly doubled the likelihood of students to earn a degree. ASAP provides free tuition, textbooks, and public transportation, but also robust advising and academic support. Learning communities, tutoring and seminars aim to bolster soft skills, support a sense of belonging, and provide students with the network and resources to keep on track.

When it comes to scholarship programs or community-based organizations, an independent study found that students in Dell Scholars are 25 percent more likely to earn their bachelor’s degrees within six years of high school graduation when compared to students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The college-completion program of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Dell Scholars provides flexible scholarship funds, advising support, and other resources to help students navigate financial, academic, and personal challenges along the path to a degree.

The right information at the right time

Being able to provide effective support through college comes down to the information at hand. When considering persistence risk factors, it’s important to understand common pitfalls throughout the academic year as well as the unique challenges that impact individual students. To manage all this data effectively at scale, consider a framework that looks at three categories of risk factors: academic, financial, and situational.

Here are a few examples of persistence risk factors in each category –

Academic: After the first year of full-time enrollment, how many credits has the student earned toward their degree plan and what is their GPA? This data can help an advisor quickly pinpoint where students may be at risk of academic probation, or when they could benefit from tutoring or meeting with an academic advisor.

Financial: Let’s look at the numbers. What is the cost of attendance and level of unmet need? How much is the student taking out in loans (subsidized or unsubsidized)? Beyond awarding scholarship dollars, offering training and informational resources can be critically important to shore up a student’s financial stability in college.

Situational: We call these the “life happens” factors. Are students working 20+ hours a week, or caring for children or elderly parents at home? Are they reporting high levels of stress or struggling with family commitments? These challenges may be invisible to a student’s professors and advisors but are often at the root of academic or financial struggles.

Putting data in action for college success

By categorizing these risk factors, programs can start to identify key characteristics of their student population to guide support strategies. For example, one of our partner programs found that upwards of 60 percent of its students were working 20+ hours per week during the school year. These students reported an average GPA of 2.4, compared to 3.1 for students working fewer than 20 hours per week. The additional work hours were clearly impacting academic performance and increasing the risk that these students would drop out of school.

A first step toward helping these students is to gather additional information. The program could launch a survey or talk to a sampling of students to learn more about why they need to work so many hours. Is it because they are supporting their family financially? Are they handling bills from a medical emergency? With greater insight, advisors can direct students to appropriate resources that may help them decrease work hours to focus more on school.

The program could also launch programming focused on work/school balance or effective budgeting. Not every student will be able to decrease work hours, but targeted coaching can help them develop the skills to make the most of their college experience. The program could also pursue local employer partnerships, to make sure those work hours are translating into career-relevant skills.

Every student is juggling multiple identities. They are college students, but they are also sons and daughters, spouses, parents, employees, with full lives outside the classroom. Supporting them through graduation day means recognizing every one of those identities and supporting the balancing act that comes alongside college enrollment. By knowing our students – each one – we can truly make a difference in supporting them along the journey.

Learn more about how to support disadvantaged students to college success.

Download our FREE new e-book, “Supporting Students All the Way to College Graduation: Solutions to Five Common Challenges.”

Tagged ,