The Parent Gap

Beliefs of mothers and fathers of low-income eighth graders -- about paying for college, etc. -- hinder later college enrollments, study finds.
August 10, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- Many studies have found that low-income high school students and those whose parents are not well educated are less likely to enroll in college. And disproportionate numbers of black and Latino youth fall into this group.

One solution to this problem is to increase the availability of aid -- as the Obama administration and Congress appear to agree with their plans to increase the maximum Pell Grant significantly. But research presented here Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association suggested that without shifting the attitudes of parents of low-income students -- well before it’s time to enroll for college -- any increases may not have the full impact desired.

Deborah M. Warnock, a sociologist at the University of Washington, began her paper by citing numerous previous studies showing that students from low-income families (and others) are more likely to go to college if parents are engaged in the process, encouraging their children and having some sense of how to finance higher education.

Her findings are summed up in her paper’s title: “Inequalities at the Outset.” Using a combination of federal and state databases in which parents are interviewed about college for their eighth graders, she finds negative attitudes that not only are likely to discourage these youth from enrolling, but that suggest widespread ignorance of the present availability of aid -- even before any Pell Grant growth -- for those below the poverty line. And she found that low-income white parents may be particularly unaware of aid.

Among her findings:

  • Hispanic and Asian parents of eighth graders are less likely than white parents to think about how to finance a higher education, and black parents are more likely than white parents to think about paying for college.
  • Parents with low incomes and less education are less likely than others to have thought about how to pay for college.
  • While a majority of parents of all demographic groups who are below poverty level report that they believe they have “no way” of getting funds for college for their children, white parents in poverty are more likely to have this feeling than are minority parents.
  • Among middle and upper income families, across the board, only a minority feel there is “no way” to pay for colleges. In this economic group, whites are less likely than minority parents to feel that way.

The findings about low-income parents believing that they can’t imagine finding funds for college anywhere are “especially troubling,” Warnock writes, because “all of these families would likely be eligible for Pell Grants,” which could cover considerable shares of expenses at many institutions. So these families do in fact have resources, but don’t realize it. While studies in the 1990s found that many high schoolers and their parents were unaware of the availability of aid, the Warnock paper suggests that public information campaigns that have taken place since haven’t changed the situation and may be needed earlier.

As to why white parents would be especially pessimistic, Warnock notes that previous studies have suggested that up to one third of junior and high school students believe that financial aid is available only for minority students. This could account for low-income white parents thinking they don’t have any help for them – even though Pell Grants (and many other programs) are based on income, not race and ethnicity.

Warnock’s paper praises Obama’s aid proposals as “a key policy to increase access to college for underrepresented groups.” But she concludes: “[i]n order for low-income students to take advantage of this, they must know that financial aid, such as the Pell Grant, even exists.”

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