After decades of near invisibility on the national policy stage, community college students, particularly low-income students, have become the focus of high-profile government and philanthropic initiatives to increase their rates of graduation. The need for these efforts is clear when looking at the statistics on college access and, even more so, on college completion. A recent study from the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that about half of low-income young adults in the United States enroll in higher education, but only 11 percent of them earn a postsecondary degree. So while it is important to continue to expand postsecondary opportunities for low-income students, we must also focus on abolishing the barriers that deter their college completion.
The problem is that we have limited knowledge of these students and why they are having such a tough time of it.
What research we do have comes mostly from demographic and institutional data or from large-scale surveys and reveals that low-income students, compared to their middle-class peers, tend to have longer transitions between high school and college and, once there, lower retention. It also reveals that low-income students frequently enter college in need of remedial coursework, lack adequate financial aid, and require additional mentoring to succeed.
While this research offers a broad outline of the lives of low-income students, we know surprisingly little about their daily experiences, about the day-to-day reality of being poor and attending college. Likewise, we know little about their perception of the institutional response to their needs. This paucity of on-the-ground knowledge is a prescription for policy disaster, for the history of social policy is littered with reforms that failed because local knowledge was ignored. How, we wonder, can legislators and educators know what kinds of interventions to create without hearing from the very people they are trying to help?
Documenting the experiences and perceptions of students is integral to the development of effective interventions; therefore, we need to be asking the following crucial questions:
- How and where do low-income students get information about attending college? What goes into their decision-making to attend college, select a major or a program, and, if it comes to it, quit before earning a degree?
- How do students perceive success or failure in their college work? In what particular ways do the events in their lives outside of college influence their educational careers?
- How do students’ multiple social identities – race, gender, class, immigration status, and sexual orientation – affect their time in college?
- How, in brief, do low-income students make meaning of the postsecondary experience?
In addition to incorporating more student perspectives into educational policy, we need to better understand the low-income part of low-income students’ lives. While the immediate economic challenges students face are certainly mentioned in higher education research and policy, there is little attention paid to social class structure or to the long-term effects of chronic poverty. Yet we see the results of these conditions every day as we talk to students: the specific consequences of a history of inadequate schooling, the effects of untreated health problems, and the instability that comes with a lack of material resources – for example, how easily one bad break can lead to homelessness. Poverty does not determine values and behavior, but policy-makers need to more fully address how being poor affects students’ sense of what is possible as well as their daily college experiences and the decisions they make.
Furthermore, the widespread assumption that college leads to economic security and good jobs is increasingly tenuous. While we know that educational attainment is a key socioeconomic indicator, observers of the current labor market point out that many new graduates are severely underemployed, and white- as well as blue-collar jobs are being outsourced. In addition, the effects of the current recession – steep increases in poverty and unemployment as well as big cuts to public education – matter greatly when thinking about college access and completion. Yet, this paradox of college’s link to social mobility versus the realities of the economy is not often teased out in initiatives to get more people into classrooms.
Finally, we think that discussions about the reasons why low-income students go to college and what keeps them there should be expanded. The government and philanthropic initiatives geared to this population are framed and justified in relation to the needs of the labor market and supplying workers for 21st century jobs. Rarely mentioned are other traditional goals of American education such as intellectual growth or civic and social responsibility. While we’ve definitely heard from students that their desire to go (or return) to college is to get a better job, we’ve also heard a range of other reasons that support retention and persistence. Students in career programs like fashion or nursing, for example, talk about how they are drawn to the skills they are learning – the work sparks intellectual, creative, and social meaning for them. Students describe how they want to make something of themselves, turn their lives around, or be a role model for their children. In short, while economics is front and center for low-income students, going to college achieves other important goals as well. These goals need to be better discussed and understood in order to create programs that tap into and foster them.
We hear many voices surrounding the initiatives to get low-income people into college, but we rarely hear the voices of the students themselves. Yet, the better we understand and incorporate students’ sense of the college experience and bring that perspective to bear on our policies, the better our programs will be.
Tara Watford, Vicki Park, and Mike Rose are members of the Pathways to Postsecondary Success project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Watford is director of research for the project at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Park is director of research for the project at the University of California at San Diego. Rose is a faculty member of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.