What’s the price of poverty?
There are a lot of challenges that go with being poor in America. That's true too when it comes to higher education. Lower-income students are much less likely than higher-income students to make it to college and graduate. And in today's economy, it's difficult to earn a middle class income without a college degree.
Family income as a predictor of student achievement and attainment has long been of interest to the U.S. government. As a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a study was commissioned to evaluate the extent to which children of different backgrounds experienced equal educational opportunities. Known as the Coleman Report, data clearly established a strong relationship between student achievement and family socioeconomic status. Neighborhood location, school and teacher quality and parental educational attainment are only a few of the variables identified as socioeconomic differences affecting achievement.
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Almost 50 years have passed since the completion of this foundational study and the relationship between socioeconomic status and student achievement continues to be studied and debated, as it is clearly in the best interest of the U.S. to have a well-educated population. A recent study by Sean Reardon, an associate professor at Stanford University, looked at the size of the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students. His findings indicate that in spite of the efforts made by the U.S. Department of Education in targeting low-income students, the gap between low-income and higher income students has grown substantially. In fact, the gap in test scores has increased by 40%. "It's harder to be poor in America than it used to be," Reardon noted.
Another recent study by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski has shown that it's also harder to enroll in college and complete a degree for lower-income students. In their study of students born between 1979 and 1982, 29% of the low-income students made it to college by age 19 and 9% completed their degrees by age 25. In comparison, 80% of students from high-income families enrolled in college and 54% completed their degrees.
A half a century of studying socioeconomic status and student achievement has provided a wealth of information documenting the barriers to academic success for poor students. Recent studies place urgency on policy implementation to assist these students. Just as it was almost 50 years ago, the economic health of the U.S. will be greatly affected by the success or failure of our students.