Listening to Student Voices to Inform Educational Reform Efforts
A quick glance at the disparities in college completion rates by race and income reminds us that achieving equity is a critical issue in educational change today.
Why is college completion so important? A recent article in the Atlantic reports alarming statistics. Those with a college degree earn 70% more than those with a high school diploma. In 2012, college educated households earned one-half the income in the U.S., even though they are only one-third of the population. Put simply, having a college degree pays off.
Although more students from low-income families are enrolling in college, less than 10% complete degrees. This number has grown only slightly over the past 20 years. In fact, the gap in college completion between rich and poor has widened. Similarly, when we look at college enrollment patterns by race, we see that more underrepresented racial minority students are enrolling than in the past, but their college completion rates still lag behind.
How can we ensure that more underserved students persist and graduate from college? Having numbers that show how many students enroll and persist in post-secondary education is important, but unless we understand from students why these outcomes occur, we run the risk of misunderstanding patterns and implementing ineffective interventions.
My colleagues Daniel Solorzano, Vicki Park, Tara Watford, and I recently released a report on the Pathways to Postsecondary Success study, reporting findings from interviews with over 300 low-income young adults in California, as well as state and national survey data. Our study identified key institutional factors that support college success for low-income youth and many details about what works well for low-income students and what doesn't.
Listening to the students, we learned that education is a powerful force in the lives of low-income youth. The students had a strong sense of the opportunities and barriers in their path. When low-income students experienced caring educators and high quality instruction in high school and college, such factors made a tremendous difference to their engagement and success in college. High quality K-12 schooling combined with college preparatory resources and advising helped ensure success for some of these students.
This is not the high school experience that most low-income students have, however. Many low-income students we interviewed reported that they lacked the academic preparation needed for college, and they did not have sufficient guidance on how to apply. Nationally, 78% of low-income youth do not complete a college preparatory curriculum in high school. In California, 85% of community college students require remediation in math and English. Unless they were in special programs in high school or in community college, the students we interviewed found many obstacles in their pathway to post secondary success. This is not surprising, as our study occurred in the midst of the economic downturn, when educational institutions in California were experiencing serious budget shortfalls and had to cut support programs, increase counselor-student ratios, lay off teachers, and increase class sizes. These conditions led to formidable challenges for students and educators alike.
Our study also highlights that low-income youth are a diverse group, with varied backgrounds and life experiences. Understanding the similarities and differences in their student population can enable administrators to better plan educational reforms at the K-12 and higher education levels. For example, common beliefs about traditional college students may be less relevant as we plan for the growing number of college students who are working full-time, raising families, and have many responsibilities outside of school. These students are quickly becoming the majority, and we need to orient around their needs.
In order to help low-income students succeed and graduate from college at higher rates, we also need to focus both on student assets and institutional assets, rather than focusing on deficits. Low-income students show significant motivation and ability to persevere in spite of challenges. These traits will serve them well in their educational pursuits and in the labor market. Despite difficult budget circumstances, schools and college have launched promising reforms that may provide models for assisting a larger number of students in reaching their educational goals. Additionally, they employ many dedicated and talented leaders and teachers who are committed to improving student success. In the voices of low-income students, we learn first hand what can help them achieve their educational goals. Let's continue to listen to our students so that we can engage in educational reforms that respond to their needs and support their success.
Amanda Datnow is a professor and the chair of the department of education studies at the University of California, San Diego.