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Low-Income College Students' Journey Can Be a Struggle

Completing college for many low-income students can be tough.

It's not just merely the lack of money, but often the lack of family support. Coming from a community where few others have gone to college is an adjustment of culture. Many students are torn by a desire to break out on their own, but also care for their extended family and not alienate themselves too much by surpassing the success of those they love.

An article in The New York Times on Sunday follows the journey of three academically promising students in an Upward Bound program as they try to pursue the American dream of a college degree. It painfully documents the reality that many low-income students face adjusting to life on campuses where many feel out of place and never make it to graduation.

The experience of the women from Galveston, Texas, in The Times highlights the need for a simpler financial-aid system. One student was eligible for substantial aid, but missed out on much of it because of confusion over forms and deadlines. She ended up racking up substantial debt, but never completing a degree—an all-too-common scenario for low-income students.

The piece also illustrates the need for additional counseling for students in higher education. For many low-income students, a caring counselor made the difference in encouraging them to get into college, but once on campus, there is not a continuation of that support.

While racial gaps in academic performance are narrowing, success by income is widening. And affluent students have a growing advantage in college completion. Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage-point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor's degrees, and now the gap is 45 points, according to The Times article.

Recent research finds for children born in the early 1960s compared with those in the 1980s, rates of college completion rose by 18 percentage points for cohorts from high-income families and just 4 percent for those from low-income backgrounds.

As advocates for increased college completion consider higher education reforms, real-life stories such as the one told in The Times, should help policymakers understand the barriers of cost, culture, and counseling that need to be addressed if more Americans are going to make it to the finish line in college.

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