College Guide


December 26, 2012 1:52 PM The Poor in College

By Daniel Luzer

In the last 40 years the United States has made great efforts to give more Americas access to college. In particular, federal grants and many loan programs are specifically designed to get poor students into college.

It isn’t working out so well. According to an article by Jason De Parle in the New York Times:

Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees….Now the gap is 45 points.

Why? The article, which takes as its anecdote the story of a group of Texas friends where three girls went to college, and none graduated, makes a great deal out of family and personal choices. Someone’s mother had a drinking problem. The girls made poor romantic choices. Other possibilities?

Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.

While soaring incomes and neighborhood segregation are important, it’s probably that last part that matters most.

The reason poor people are less likely to complete college than they were 30 years ago is because public college is a lot more expensive. This is not really that complicated. In 1992, the average net price of public college was $1,920 a year (in 2012 dollars). Now it’s $2,910.

“Low-income students… are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.” And they’re right to be deterred. It’s true that family structure and neighborhood schools are important but, from a policy standpoint, such things are mostly incidental.

The number one reason students drop out of college is that it costs too much. This might be a hard problem to solve, but it’s not really a hard problem to understand.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Ron Mexico on December 26, 2012 2:33 PM:

    Thanks for this post, this topic ought to be front-and-center in any kind of discussion about reforming/blowing up the university system.

    In my experience, the cost of higher ed translates directly into reasonable decisions which make any skills/experience deficits worse. Students struggling to afford college take far too many courses, too soon (at least 5 in their first semester, often 6) and work too much. Middle-income and (especially) wealthy college students with below-average skills can avoid doing either, and thus have some cushion in their schedules when they realize college is hard. By refusing to fund higher ed, states and the federal government are ensuring that it is far less efficient at doing what they want colleges to do (enable achievement across ses-levels).

  • LiberalGRIT on December 27, 2012 3:46 PM:

    Hi Daniel, you incorrectly said these three women profiled were in one family -- they were not. This makes me wonder about the rest of your analysis.

    I work with low-income youth, predominantly new immigrants or first-generation American citizens, who wish to go to college. And while my group is an extreme case, your analysis that it's all about the money is off, by a very large margin, in my experience. The lack of family support, sometimes the family actively opposing college, and then the bewildering bureaucratic forest of applications and financial aid pretty much doom many of these students' hopes. It's not just about money, not even from a policy perspective -- because if policy is not concerned with the horrible standards of many secondary schools, what the heck is policy for??

  • Robert on December 28, 2012 12:10 AM:

    What's more frustrating, but not covered much in the media, or in scholarly research (believe me I am continuously searching), is the fact that there are many poor people (myself included) who successfully complete college, but then are not provided the opportunity to put our hard-earned education to use in order to make hard-earned money. I was forced to return to school, first for additional undergraduate work, and now for a Master's degree, all because employers wouldn't even grant me the opportunity to INTERVIEW for a job. As a result, even as a college graduate, I have lived most of the last 10 years with my mother, not by choice but necessity, and I am about to go into even more debt since I wasn't earning the money that would allow me to pay off my undergraduate debt.

  • ceilidth on December 28, 2012 7:38 PM:

    Shame on you. Did you actually read the article? Of course money was part of the problem, but only part and not necessarily just the cost. If you didn't notice the part about Emory rewriting the FAFSA app and raising the student's reported income because they didn't believe how poor the student was you missed something that was huge and I would assume illegal. It put her just over the income limit below which she would not have incurred debt at Emory. And yes it is tough to be a first generation college student at a university where it feels like everyone else comes from a different planet.