Income and College Success

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Tom Mortenson, a higher ed policy analyst, offers these sobering statistics on his Postsecondary Education Opportunity blog:

By any conceivable measure students from families with incomes of more than $100,000 are doing extraordinarily well in the education pipeline. They have the highest high school graduation rates (92.5%), college continuation rates for those that graduate from high school (87.0%), and bachelor's degree completion rate by age 24 for those who start college (90.1%). As a result they earn bachelor's degrees by age 24 at far higher rates (72.6%) than do students born into lower income families (27.9% in the third quartile, 16.6% in the second quartile, 12.3% in the bottom quartile).

The common statistic that 50% of those who enter college don't graduate is misleading.  Actually, 90% of wealthy kids who enter college graduate.  Meanwhile, only 12% of the poorest kids earn bachelor's degrees.  That means--yep--the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, given what we know about how a college education improves one's chances of earning a high income over a lifetime. 

A key reason poorer kids don't graduate from college--indeed, a reason some don't enter college--is that they're weak readers.  Through no fault of their own, most heard a smaller spoken vocabulary as preschoolers, had fewer books in their homes, and attended weaker public schools.  When they arrive at college, they're overwhelmed by the requirements of background knowledge, comprehension of difficult texts, and the sheer volume of reading required.  It's been said that 80% of college learning comes through reading.  If you're a weak reader, you're not passing the tests, earning the degree, nor achieving the professional and income advantages of your wealthier peers.

Lots of work is being done on this situation at the Pre-K - 12 levels, but that doesn't help our current students who are dropping out of college at alarming rates.  Can we make up for reading weakesses in college reading classes or through some other type of intervention?  What do you think?   

5 Comments

Mike Arnzen said:

Nice post! I like how show that graduation statistics are not all-inclusive, and don't account for differences in economic class. It's not really so cut-and-dried, obviously. I've seen just as many privileged students do poorly in school due to lack of motivation (and, conversely, lower working class students with high motivation (and ye olde 'work ethic'), driven to raise themselves up). And am to understand from the 50% statistic that half of our students (the ones graduating at 90% rates) are rich and the other half are poor? I don't know if that's accurate, but the reason grad rates are always off isn't just because of demographic complexities, but because of the high churn rate of students who drop-out, transfer, put off school for a few years, etc. Not graduating does not equal not learning, or not finishing, either, because there's always the open loop that they could return to school.

I'm all for reading. Your point seems to suggest "reading is a key to economic power" as much as it is for learning, and I entirely concur. Even on the basic societal level: I wonder how many of those people living in foreclosed homes right now or who are suffering from the mortgage crisis never read their mortgage contracts very closely. That's just one of an infinitude of examples where language skills can hold a person back. So obviously reading is a skill people need to learn, but they also need to learn to value it as much as other things in their lives. That's sometimes harder to teach!

Holly said:

That 80% figure was interesting to me.

It seems to me difficult to require reading classes (which have the developmental-taint) for all students who might benefit from them. But some instruction in reading at the college level is clearly needed. Part of the issue, based on what I hear from my students, is that many have managed to get through high school without cracking a textbook and the attitude that textbook-reading is not necessary continues on to college, esp. if teachers don't do anything to correct it. Rather than require a reading class per se across the board, I think that reading instruction needs to be infused in virtually all gen ed classes. (I talked, for example, with a history teacher who explains to his students how to read a history text and how take notes, going so far as to collect and grade notes, which may seem a little high-schoolish but also seems warranted.) The challenge here, or one challenge anyway, is that subject-matter teachers are not necessarily experienced in how to teach reading skills; professional development in this area is crucial, I think.

I remember reading that one of the most accurate predictors of academic success is the number of books in the child's home. Many books = the parents can afford them AND the parents value books enough to collect them, so the number of books responds to two factors that work together.

By the way, It's easy to pick up loads of kids books at libraries -- people often donate children's books to libraries when their kids get too old for them, and the libraries can't possibly put all those books on the shelf.

I just watched a re-run of Cosby the other day, and Theo failed a test on material he knew inside and out(though a fictional example, lest we not forget the Huxtables were wealthy). Theo was convinced that the teachers just didn't understand his thinking, and that the test was all trick questions.

It turns out that he had a mild form of dyslexia, which they discovered throughout the show with help from a school counselor.

My first two years of college were extremely difficult, and I was an AP student in high school coming from a middle class family, so reading abilities and money concerns weren't looming objects in my path. It all depends on the situation, and I think these blog posts represent how much SHU faculty is attuned to that. Many thanks.

meep said:

I think the 80% percent is a little misleading.It also seems to depend on the discipline. I double majored in a science and a humanity. I have always been a strong reader. Science classes had PowerPoint presentations and the texts closely paralleled class lecture. My humanities (classics) classes were about interpretation so reading the text was only a start, most of the information you needed to learn and grow came from the teacher, and this was presented orally. This was a mammoth obstacle for me because I had an undiagnosed auditory processing disorder. I resorted to critiques of the work where available but that just wasn't always possible and my teachers wondered why my writing was in such a different direction that the ideas we were exploring in class.So the two departments were like night and day.

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