Who Gets to Graduate

Hopeful, occasionally grim, altogether fascinating Paul Tough feature in the Times Magazine about the trouble high-achieving students from low-income families often have in graduating from college and what can be / is being done about it:

There are thousands of students like Vanessa at the University of Texas, and millions like her throughout the country — high-achieving students from low-income families who want desperately to earn a four-year degree but who run into trouble along the way. Many are derailed before they ever set foot on a campus, tripped up by complicated financial-aid forms or held back by the powerful tug of family obligations. Some don’t know how to choose the right college, so they drift into a mediocre school that produces more dropouts than graduates. Many are overwhelmed by expenses or take on too many loans. And some do what Vanessa was on the verge of doing: They get to a good college and encounter what should be a minor obstacle, and they freak out. They don’t want to ask for help, or they don’t know how. Things spiral, and before they know it, they’re back at home, resentful, demoralized and in debt.

Vanessa, one of the less-affluent struggling students profiled in the piece, does many things right, like choosing the flagship institution UT-Austin in the first place. Tough notes, “The more selective the college you choose, the higher your likelihood of graduating.” Not too surprisingly, though, society cannot merely guide good students to good colleges, wave bye to them at the gate, and assume that they’ll succeed on their own.

Students from low-income families don’t have a lot of the support, stability, and, duh, money from home that higher-income students can take for granted. Without those things, too often students’ “nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Once at school, they need dollops of strategic help, and intelligent intervention programs like the one at UT-Austin have already proven successful. Even more modest attempts at building community among minority freshman are beneficial. After all, as Shakespeare might say, the problem is not in our stars, but in our selves:

Every college freshman — rich or poor, white or minority, first-generation or legacy — experiences academic setbacks and awkward moments when they feel they don’t belong. But white students and wealthy students and students with college-graduate parents tend not to take those moments too seriously or too personally. … It is only students facing the particular fears and anxieties and experiences of exclusion that come with being a minority — whether by race or by class — who are susceptible to this problem. Those students often misinterpret temporary setbacks as a permanent indication that they can’t succeed or don’t belong.

It’s about empowering the students to do what they are already capable of doing. That’s the brilliance of this plan and why it’s a smart investment for every school that wants to attract talent from all income levels.

“What I like about these interventions is that the kids themselves make all the tough choices,” Yeager told me. “They deserve all the credit. We as interveners don’t. And that’s the best way to intervene. Ultimately a person has within themselves some kind of capital, some kind of asset, like knowledge or confidence. And if we can help bring that out, they then carry that asset with them to the next difficulty in life.”

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