Critics of the United States like to single out our large disparities in life outcomes as evidence of our country’s moral failures. As disturbing as differences in income and wealth are, we Americans remain wedded to our foundational story: With hard work and a large dose of determination, even the poorest among us can climb the social ladder.
We probably each can recite such a Horatio Alger story. I see them each year in my classroom, where sit immigrants who have fled poverty and conflict, having exchanged it for the security and success our country offers them.
But anecdotes mustn’t be confused with reality.
The most important way to provide the Horatios among us an equal chance up that ladder is to ensure that each has the same college-going opportunities as do everyone else.
Yet we know that isn’t true. Low-income and minority students attend college at a fraction of the rate of others. You can chalk most of that up to our astonishingly large achievement gap. Still, even among academically gifted students, most low-income ones will skip college. By contrast, whether they are academically gifted or not, nearly all wealthy students go to college.
Two recent reports paint an even more dismal picture of the extent to which all of our nation’s youth have an equal chance at college.
The journal Future of Children just published a review of federal programs designed to get low-income students into and through the academic pipeline. The authors, Ron Haskins and Cecilia Rouse, conclude that despite the billions spent on such programs, it’s doubtful that any have boosted the rate at which disadvantaged students enroll in or complete college.
On the heels of this study came another by the American Council on Education (ACE). This one looked at millions of college students and compared the characteristics of those enrolled with those who actually completed their degree.
While today you’ll find a much more diverse pool of college-going students, the ACE study found that those who successfully exit college remain disproportionately white, come from wealthier backgrounds and are financially supported by their college-educated parents. Those minority and poorer students who do graduate take longer to do so and wind up with more debt and jobs that are less well-paid.
Billions of federal dollars aren’t improving college access. While nontraditional students do enroll in college, they have a tough time finishing. To this add the solid but depressing evidence that federal Pell Grants do little to increase college-going among the poor. If you’re inclined to throw up your hands, you’d have a lot of company.
For good reason, Haskin and Rouse take the U.S. Department of Education to task for not considering if the programs it funds are effective, or if the organizations that use its money make good use of it.
It’s here where our Horatio Alger myth doesn’t serve us. We should be appalled that despite billions spent, government programs haven’t done much to untilt the playing field. But ineffective government policies are let off the hook if we think the real problem lies within individuals.
On that score, we need only look in our own backyard for evidence that effective intervention can make a difference.
For the last 10 years, the College Success Foundation–Tacoma – a public-private organization – has assisted promising low-income students by providing them with the mentoring and counseling they need to negotiate the college application process.
It also helps them locate scholarships, and then continues mentoring and counseling them until they’ve completed their college degree. Careful research has documented its success in getting disadvantaged students into and out of college.
The nonprofit Palmer Scholars is another local gem. Each year Palmers identifies a small cohort of low-income, minority youth in Pierce County and provides each with the financial, mentoring and moral support to get them through college – which more than 90 percent of them do.
These two organizations provide the comprehensive support, information and individualized attention that low-income students often need to navigate what can be tough teenage and young adult years.
It’s time the federal government reconsiders its piecemeal, fragmented and confusing array of college-going programs; a good start would be to look to Pierce County for advice on what to do differently. If it took that advice, the result might even quiet some of our nation’s critics. Palmer Scholars
Palmer Scholars is now raising $150,000 for an endowment in order to receive a matching contribution from an anonymous donor. To contribute, visit their website or write Palmer Scholars, PO Box 7119, Tacoma, WA 98417.Katie Baird is an associate professor of economics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.