For all the talk about whether college is worth its potentially crushing costs, graduating from college remains one of the only vehicles that reliably propels Americans out of poverty. Yet just half of low-income college students earn degrees in six years.
For students from struggling cities, the odds are even steeper. Are they ready for college? And are colleges ready to help them graduate? An ongoing series from Detroit and Newark in the 2019-20 school year examines those questions.
The ‘college completion crisis’ explained
Nationally, 60% of students who enroll at four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The rate is much lower for black students (40%), Hispanic students (55%), and low-income students (49%). In a scene-setter, we outline the many forces that conspire to stop students from completing college, from poor academic preparation to the challenges posed by poverty to colleges’ reluctance or inability to meet the needs of students who start out behind.
Meet 5 students as they begin an uncertain journey
Yamin Reddick thought he was ready, even though he graduated from a high school where few graduates complete college. But a summer program at his dream college — Rutgers University-Newark, which has drawn attention for its success in supporting low-income students — took him on an emotional roller coaster that left everything in doubt.
The summer program is designed to acclimate low-income students to college — and to operate like a failure vaccine that builds up students’ immunity through exposure, while they’re surrounded by caring adults and peers from similar backgrounds. It’s one of several strategies that universities are adopting to keep students who might struggle to graduate on track.
Marqell McClendon, Kashia Perkins, Demetrius Robinson, and Joseph Thomas all received enough scholarship and grant money to cover their college costs as they head from their Detroit high schools to three universities in Michigan.
But as the lead-up to the first day of class made clear, there’s much more to college than paying the bills. Like many Detroit students, they will have to navigate patchy academic preparation, culture shock, and their own shaken confidence if they are to stay enrolled and on track.
Chalkbeat Detroit partnered with Detroit Public Television to spend the year following the four students. The following video takes a close look at several of the students and the challenges they’ll face in their first year.
As students settle into their first semester, ‘bridge’ programs provide support
Detroit students Marqell, Kashia, and Demetrius each encounter challenges as their college journeys get underway. But people and programs are in place to ease their transition, both during the summer before college and during their first year.
The programs differ in structure, content, and length, but all reflect hope on the part of their colleges that giving first-generation students and underrepresented students extra support will pay off in terms of increased graduation rates.
For many students, remedial math is a hurdle that can’t be overcome
Remedial classes allow community colleges and less-selective four-year institutions to serve under-prepared students who might otherwise be shut out of higher education. But what was intended as an on-ramp to college too often becomes a parking lot — especially when it comes to math class.
Colleges are increasingly turning to self-paced, online programs in an effort to get more students past the remedial math hurdle. But a look at one program’s impact at two Newark colleges illustrates that there are pitfalls to relying on online programs for students with the most ground to make up.
Voices from the first year
Still to come…
Stay tuned for more reporting about the pivotal first year of college, including:
- The story of a high school counselor who traveled 2,600 miles in one semester visiting graduates at their colleges.
- A roundup of what research tells us about what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to getting students to and through college.
- And more windows into innovative practices that high schools and colleges are testing out as they try to break longstanding patterns that keep low-income students and students of color from graduating.
This project was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.