Dangling the carrot of higher ed 

Why kids from low-income backgrounds aren't getting into the big-league universities

  • Courtesey of Getty Images

Jose Hernandez has big dreams in this, his senior year at Palmer High School. They go something like this: He is accepted to Harvard University, studies business, graduates, starts making money and comes back to Colorado Springs to share the wealth with his family.

At 17, Hernandez is smart and gets good grades. But he has a lot to overcome. As his guidance counselor puts it, the deck is stacked against him.

His dad manages a grocery store. His mom is a housekeeper. Translation: He is a low-income kid.

That means lower odds of making his big dreams come true -- despite his hard work -- as compared with kids from upper-middle class and wealthier backgrounds.

For me, its really a question of money, Hernandez says. I will be looking at the bottom line.

Hernandez isnt alone.

Eugene Tobin, a researcher for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Hamilton College in New York, has found that hardworking students from low-income families -- those that earn roughly $30,000 to $40,000 a year -- are admitted to Ivy League schools, private liberal arts colleges and premier state universities at notably lower rates than their wealthier peers.

The ideal, Tobin says, would be this: American society and American education is a meritocracy. We want to believe that. The cream rises to the top, and thats based upon qualities of excellence that we value: hard work, stamina, intellectual acuity.

But in reality, just 11 percent of students from a representative sampling of the nations most selective colleges emerged from low-income families, according to research Tobin and two colleagues released earlier this year.

Tobin says time-honored admissions practices, such as the favoring of legacy students -- kids who attend their parents alma maters --work against students from low-income families. Moreover, policies meant to increase the number of students of color at selective universities havent helped improve the representation of low-income students.

Its starting to affect the nations bottom line, he says. When it comes to the percentage of population getting degrees, the United States currently ranks seventh in the world, and is slipping. The nations rankings in science and math are falling, too, he says.

One of the reasons we think that the U.S. has dropped in terms of these kind of rankings, is that theres a bottleneck, Tobin says.

In other words, too few talented low-income students are getting into the nations best universities and colleges.

Free money for students

Last year, Rep. Keith King, a Republican from Colorado Springs, was successful in what he describes as a two-year battle to help poor families carve out a better life for their kids.

At the time, University of Colorado system President Elizabeth Hoffman and Colorado State University President Al Yates had asked lawmakers for help in addressing their respective budget crises, which were precipitated by $400 million in higher education cuts that began in 2001.

King saw room for a compromise. In exchange for releasing the universities from the pressures of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, so they could have more flexibility with their respective budgets, Colorado would institute the nation's first and only higher education voucher system.

The idea was sold like this: The state gives students free money -- like a tuition check to help them pay for college, or a kind of state-sanctioned college savings account.

"It was a dramatic shift in thinking," King says.

click to enlarge Jose Hernandez, a Palmer High School student, is mulling - over his options with guidance counselor Kirk Powell. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Jose Hernandez, a Palmer High School student, is mulling over his options with guidance counselor Kirk Powell.

But students don't actually receive the money in hand. Instead, they sign a form allocating the funds to the institution at which they enroll.

Before the vouchers, which were implemented for the first time this fall, state government provided a lump sum to public higher education institutions, to subsidize tuition rates for Colorado residents. In some cases, students from Colorado may use vouchers toward private schools like Colorado College and the University of Denver.

But critics say the vouchers didn't change anything for low-income students.

"It's not new money," says Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs. "We haven't suddenly provided new money for higher education. ... The fund hasn't done anything to make access by low-income students any easier."

Merrifield maintains that he voted for King's bill because public university budgets have been anemic in recent years. He notes that before the vouchers were enacted, however, they were significantly slashed, down from the $4,000 a year originally envisioned to $2,400 a year.

Meanwhile, universities have raised tuition to address budget woes.

This year, tuition at Colorado's public institutions went up 17 percent on average -- the steepest rise in the nation. At CU-Boulder, in-state tuition, combined with books and housing, now is estimated at $15,000 a year, some $12,600 more than a voucher covers.

Sen. Ron Tupa from Boulder, a longtime member of the Senate Education Committee, called the voucher plan a "Faustian bargain."

"It still is," he says.

The sticking point for Tupa is that vouchers can be used only over 145 credit hours, equivalent to a 4 1/2-year timeframe for a full-time student. After that, students either must find money elsewhere, or show extreme hardship.

"If you don't graduate in that timeframe, you're going to be in trouble," Tupa says. "What if you want to switch your major? What if you want a double major? I just didn't think it was a good idea for the state to say, 'We're going to limit the amount of education we can provide.'"

Currently, just 48 percent of students in Colorado public higher-education institutions graduate within five years, according to data gathered by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

As King sees it, too many slackers in colleges and universities are eating up state money by taking their time to graduate.

"We are trying to prevent kids from going to college for five or six years to get a four-year degree," King says.

King cites CU-Boulder, which has agreed in writing to improve its six-year graduation rate to 72 percent by 2016. But he says nothing about improving graduation rates within a 4 1/2-year timeframe.

Meanwhile, Tupa fears that the fund providing the money for the vouchers, the Colorado Opportunity Fund, will suffer from inadequate funding in coming years.

Big cuts to the fund narrowly were avoided in November, when Colorado voters passed Referendum C, which allows the state to keep TABOR refunds for five years to address the state's four-year budget crisis. Analysts project that if the measure hadn't passed, the value of a voucher would have been slashed to less than $800.

King and other lawmakers now project the voucher's value increasing slightly -- but not to the amount that originally was envisioned.

"My guess is that the stipend never gets to $4,000," King says.

Gov. Bill Owens has proposed raising it by just $180 next year.

click to enlarge AT CU-Boulder, 19 percent of new students are - offsprings of an alum; only 2 percent are low-income - students who are the first in their family to attend - college. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO
  • Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado
  • AT CU-Boulder, 19 percent of new students are offsprings of an alum; only 2 percent are low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Its raining men

In an effort to increase its number of low-income students, CU-Boulder signed a contract with the state earlier this year.

The university has agreed to raise the number of "underserved" students whose families are at the federal poverty level by 5 percent by 2009.

But the students must be male -- a provision King says he personally fought to see through.

"It was one of the driving motivations I had in writing the bill," King says. "We've got to do something for males in particular. They're becoming the endangered species."

King cites a growing gender gap at colleges and universities nationwide -- roughly 57 percent women to 43 percent men.

However, that gulf doesn't exist at CU-Boulder. Last year, 53 percent of students at the university were male.

Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Center, a Denver-based research group that has studied higher education and state funding, says it is important to keep a gender balance on campuses, but is critical of King's provision because it leaves women out.

"It's not useful to categorize it that way," he says.

Buchanan was heartened by the passage of Referendum C in the November election. For the first time since 2001, the state isn't talking about cuts to higher education. The governor also has proposed that financial aid could increase by 6 percent, while tuition hikes could be capped at 2.5 percent.

But even with the passage of C, the state's higher education system appears headed for trouble in the coming years, Buchanan says. While Referendum C will allocate between $276 and $318 million to higher education in the next five years, the Bell Policy Center estimates that $559 million a year is needed to keep up with inflation and an anticipated 33 percent increase in enrollment due to the state's rising population.

And many Republicans in Congress are pushing big cuts to higher education on the federal level.

One plan, which has angered Democrats and moderate Republicans, targets $14.3 billion in student aid over the next five years. The proposal would add charges to students who default on or consolidate their loans, increase the fees parents pay to obtain loans so their kids can go to college, and remove guarantees of low interest rates.

With a typical student already strapped with $17,500 in debt, the congressional proposal would increase that debt by $5,800, opponents estimate.

Meanwhile, amid tuition inflation and rising living expenses, Pell Grants, which don't have to be repaid, have stagnated at $4,050 per student, per year, for the last four years.

Not a priority

To Kirk Powell, a guidance counselor at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, "there's no doubt" that students from low-income families are at a disadvantage when it comes to applying to the best colleges. Everything from being unable to visit schools to having had limited life experiences can hurt.

"They don't see themselves [ultimately attending] a four-year college," Powell says, based on his observations of students over the years. "They don't see themselves as a success, despite the hard work they do to get by. They see cost. They see headlines about rising tuition. It's not how much they can afford to pay on their own -- it's that many of them can't afford anything."

At stake for students is a better life.

A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that high school graduates earn, over the course of their careers, an average of $25,900 annually, as compared to $45,400 for college graduates.

click to enlarge Carrie Riffee relies on a work-study job to help her pay - for attendance at Pikes Peak Community College. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Carrie Riffee relies on a work-study job to help her pay for attendance at Pikes Peak Community College.

In their book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, Tobin of the Mellon foundation, along with two of his associates, William G. Bowen and Martin A. Kurzweil, identified a shortage of low-income students at the nation's most selective higher education institutions.

Their research found that just 11 percent of low-income students are being accepted at the nation's most selective colleges and universities. Only 6 percent are the first in their family to attend college, and a mere 3 percent are both low-income and the first in their family to attend college.

If academically successful low-income students were given the same preferences that, say, star athletes or children of alums receive, the ranks of low-income students would rise to at least 17 percent based on their level of qualification, Tobin says. Of course, the money would have to be there for them, too.

Basically, low-income students with proven potential to succeed aren't viewed as a priority deserving of an extra nudge in the admissions process, he says.

"When [low-income students] triumph, let's say, over the underfunded public schools that they attended and the disruptions in family life and the unsafe neighborhoods and the inadequate health care and all the other issues that people on the edge of urban and rural poverty have to deal with on a daily basis -- when they even make it over all those hurdles and do well in high school and get on the radar screens of select schools and make it into the credible applicant pool, something really interesting happens: They belong to a group who really have no advocate for them," Tobin says.

For example, just 14 percent of students attending CU-Boulder in 2004 were considered low-income, according to the number of students awarded Pell Grants.

That means CU-Boulder is in league with Harvard University when it comes to enrolling high-achieving students from low-income families. At Harvard, just 11 percent of the students in 2004 were low-income -- ranking the renowned university among the lowest in the nation when it comes to what Tobin terms "economic diversity."

According to information obtained through an open records request, 19 percent of new students at CU-Boulder are considered legacy students -- up by 5 percent since 2001. Meanwhile, just 2 percent of new students are both low-income and the first in their family to attend college, up by just 1 percent since 2001.

Universities offer preferences to legacy students because it can be lucrative, Tobin notes. Alums sometimes give generous donations to their schools if their children are accepted.

But Tobin says the practice should end because it challenges the ideal that universities are meritocracies. Low-income students, he says, should be granted the same kinds of considerations as students of color in order to create more equity in the nation's most selective schools.

Kevin MacLennan, CU-Boulder's director of admissions, acknowledges the percentage of students from low-income families could be higher. He says the university is reaching out to such students with a guarantee to pay their tuition and books if they are admitted.

Nonetheless, students like Paula Riley say there's not enough aid to help them.

Riley graduated from high school last spring in the Eastern Plains farming town of Hugo. After reviewing the finances available to her, she concluded she still shouldn't apply to CU-Boulder.

The expense of renting an apartment or living in the dorms -- which would not be covered by the university -- was too high.

"It was basically $10,000 I didn't have," she says.

So she enrolled at the Community College of Denver. There, Riley is able to defray living expenses by staying with her aunt. She maintains a full slate of classes and 40-hour-a-week work schedule as a waitress at a Johnny Carino's Italian restaurant. Now she aspires to get a scholarship to Johnson and Wales University, a private university in Denver, after she earns an associate's degree.

Getting the edge

This year, the Colorado Children's Campaign, which is dedicated to improving the lives of children, released a study that found that more than 309,000 low-income Colorado students slowly are falling behind their peers at wealthier public schools -- all the way from the elementary level through high school.

For example, 74 percent of 8th-graders taking the Colorado Student Assessment Program, a standardized test mandated by the state to gauge achievement, this year in wealthier schools were considered "proficient," as compared to just 33 percent from poorer schools. A similar gap held for 10th-graders.

Powell, one of six guidance counselors working with roughly 1,870 students at Palmer High School, has noticed that low-income students tend to have more academic trouble than students from wealthier families do.

click to enlarge Michael Reyes, a student at Pikes Peak Community - College, plans to become a physics teacher. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Michael Reyes, a student at Pikes Peak Community College, plans to become a physics teacher.

"A lot of the time, they're not equipped to handle the courses that these Tier 1 schools require," Powell says.

Yet many, like Hernandez, are, he adds.

And students like him overcome many obstacles. Low-income students can't always count on parents being around to help with homework because they're often at work. Some students get distracted because they have to baby-sit siblings. Some work themselves, on nights and weekends, to help pay for rent, groceries and heat.

Students from poorer families also are less likely to be involved in extracurricular activities, like sports and clubs and unpaid internships. That hurts when they apply to colleges, which are looking for well-rounded students.

Tobin says when the pieces start coming together, low-income students just don't seem as worldly as their wealthier peers, in spite of their efforts to succeed.

"[Students from wealthier families] have had the chance to probably travel abroad," he says. "Their writing, the whole ethos about them, may reflect much more polish and sophistication -- as well as their vanity. You've got that against a student from a working-class background who might be the first in his or her family to go to college."

Another big disadvantage is that low-income kids often can't afford classes to prepare for the standardized SAT, a key measure used by the best colleges and universities to narrow the list of applicants.

SAT preparation has become a multimillion-dollar industry, and many parents currently pay $1,000 or more for intensive classes designed to give their kids an edge.

Hernandez's family can't afford the edge.

He's studying for the test the old-fashioned way -- cracking the books and burning the midnight oil.

Counselors at Palmer High School have sought to level the playing field by securing a professional SAT teacher to lead a two-night, condensed course at a discount. It helps many students who might not otherwise afford such classes, but the $79 price tag is still too much for some families, Powell notes.

And the SAT can be the difference between getting in and not. CU-Boulder, for example, puts emphasis on applicants both graduating in the top 25 percent of their class and scoring well on the SAT.

But research shows that even high-achieving low-income students consistently score lower on SATs.

The odds, Tobin says, of taking the SAT and scoring over 1,200 are more than three times lower for a student whose family earns roughly $30,000 a year than for a student from a wealthy family.

"Of course, wealthier students aren't smarter, although there are some parents who would suggest that," he says.

On the front lines

As a 31-year-old single mom with three pre-teenage boys, Carrie Riffee has struggled hard, even battling homelessness, to get to Pikes Peak Community College. She's looking to transfer to UCCS next year to pursue a bachelor's degree in political science.

These days, two-year community college credits are more transferable to four-year universities than they ever were before.

But Riffee, who is president of the student body this year, worries that if something happens and she has to drop classes, or wants to change direction, the vouchers will run out.

"It has made me cut out the classes that aren't essential," she says.

Michael Reyes, another PPCC student, says he wishes more classes were covered under the vouchers for students planning to transfer. He decided to become a physics teacher after taking an optional class in space-based physics before the vouchers went into effect.

"That was the course that put me on track," he says. "I don't know that I would have taken it now. It's not transferable. It didn't count toward anything."

He also plans to transfer to UCCS. His decision to begin his studies at the community college is simple:

"UCCS costs about twice as much as Pikes Peak," he says.


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