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College Is Different for the Poor

Although I still believe that a college education can be the best way to promote upward mobility, I have less faith than ever before. I say that because it's becoming increasingly clear just how formidable the obstacles are for low-income students.

Despite efforts made to encourage students who would never otherwise have even considered college as a possibility, students from poor families are finding it harder than ever to finish their degrees on time. The stress created by taking on huge debt, coupled with campus alienation, often lead to a high dropout rate. The gap between the share of prosperous and poor students who earn bachelor's degrees has risen to 45 percentage points from 31 percentage points 30 years ago ("For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall," The New York Times, Dec. 23).

Nevertheless, the income divide receives far less attention than the racial divide. I never appreciated how complex the issue is because going to college in my family was a given. When I once asked my mother about financing my college education, she said not to worry about it. I can still hear her words: "We'd take the gold out of our teeth to pay for it if we had to." But students from impoverished homes don't have the advantages I did.

But it's just not the lack of money that is on their minds. They also don't feel particularly comfortable in colleges that enroll students from drastically different cultural backgrounds. Colleges are sensitive to this factor and try to make students feel welcome on campus. But they can do only so much. Social life is largely beyond their control. What takes place in the dorms and elsewhere is a world of its own. So the best intentions to promote diversity can have unintended negative effects.

What often happens, therefore, when it comes time to apply to college is that poor students engage in either under-matching or mismatching. In the former, they deliberately choose a close or familiar college, instead of the best they could attend. In the latter, they overestimate their academic ability and choose a college where they can't hold their own against better prepared students ("The Hidden Campus Crisis," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 23, 2012). When that ocurs, they feel humiliated.

I believe the situation will only get worse. The income gap is widening, with all that implies for young people. For example, affluent families in 1972 were spending five times as much per child as poor families. By 2007, the gap had grown to nine times as much per child ("Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say," The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2012). There will always be some students who rise above their backgrounds to excel, but exceptions don't negate a rule.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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