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PBS NewsHour : Biggest Predictor of College Success is Family Income

What’s the most important indicator of whether or not a student will graduate from college? According to Vice Provost David Laude at the University of Austin (UT), it isn’t how hard a student studies or how well they did in high school.

Instead, the most important indicator of whether or not a student will graduate from college is largely out of his or her control: household income.

PBS NewsHour recently explored this issue and the ways in which institutions are fighting to keep their lower-income students enrolled and on track in the five-part series, Rethinking College: Closing the Graduation Gap.

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Additional research backs up Laude’s findings. According to a 2015 report from the Pell Institute, 77 percent of students from high-income backgrounds graduated from college in 2013. In comparison, only nine percent of low-income students earned their degree that same year.

Rethinking College explores several of the experimental strategies colleges around the country are using to fight these odds.

Some involve mitigating the hefty price tag of a four-year education. For example, “Direct Connect” guarantees credit transfer and admission to the University of Central Florida for graduates of a nearby community college. It also removes the guesswork out of transferring to a four-year institution and cuts students’ tuition costs in half.

Another strategy focuses on eliminating merit-based aid. While merit-based aid was designed to attract the best and brightest students, it has increasingly allocated precious financial aid dollars to students from affluent families. Franklin & Marshall, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, was once one of higher education’s worst offenders for low economic diversity in its student body; but its transition to need-based financial aid has tripled its enrollment of students from lower-income backgrounds.

Of course, financial burdens aren’t the only factors keeping college students from graduating. UT student Moises Correa spoke of the guilt he feels about leaving his parents behind. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not really helping my family,” he said. “I am living a luxury, eating food here as much as I want, and having my own place to live.” Moises sends home $400 of his scholarship money to pay his family’s electric bill.

Several other students also said they feel disconnected or different from their peers from wealthier backgrounds. UT sophomore Brenda TA said she feels like other students are just in college to have fun. But she feels enormous pressure from her parents to succeed and that, “if [she] screws up, then [she’s] screwing up mom and dad, too.”

To support these students and keep them connected to the community throughout their college careers, Vice Provost David Laude established a leadership program that doubles as a support group for 500 incoming students from low-income backgrounds. The program recruits students before they enroll and offer them a $1000 scholarship per semester as incentive to attend weekly meetings and workshops, as well as take part in internships and volunteer opportunities.

The extra support has clearly paid off; 92 percent of the program’s flagship class of students are returning to school this fall.
 

To learn more about the graduation gap for low-income students and how institutions are finding ways to narrow it, watch episodes from the series online here: