Graduation Rates for First-Generation Students Differ Depending on Income

Nov 9, 2015

Low-income college students may feel they don't belong, that they're not part of campus culture.

Across the U.S., low-income, first-generation college students are not graduating at the same rate as some of their wealthier peers. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, last year more than 40 percent of the nation’s young white 20-somethings had completed a bachelor’s degree. But for African Americans, it was about half that rate, and for Hispanics about a third.

In her radio documentary “Lower Income, Higher Ed,” WAMC reporter Kavitha Cardoza looks at urban schools' focus on getting low-income students into college, and then what actually happens once they get there. As a guest on WNPR's Where We Live, Cardoza said for a long time not a lot of attention was paid to the numbers of promising low-income college students who end up dropping out.

"We talk about getting into college as the final step, rather than completing college," said Cardoza. "Some estimates are as low as just one low-income student out of every four actually completes. This becomes a real problem, because often when they drop out, they not just feel like a failure, but these students also have college loans to repay."

Kavitha Cardoza.
Credit Courtesy Kavitha Cardoza

Cardoza said low-income college students are more likely to doubt themselves. They may feel as if they don’t belong; that they're not part of campus culture, and may have difficulty advocating for themselves.

Now, however, she said higher education is starting to pay attention. Some colleges and universities have created smaller groups for incoming freshman, so that low-income students can take classes with a smaller cohort.

"You feel like you know a group of people. Some have faculty advisors that will meet the same group of, say, twenty kids every week, so they don’t feel as alone," Cardoza said. "Some colleges are inviting first-generation low-income students to come during the summer, and spend two or three weeks on campus, or to start college a week early, so they kind of get used to campus.”

Other schools, she said, have begun what's called "intentional outreach", seeking out students who may be at risk of dropping out and offering help.

The New Haven Promise program has created an academic and near-peer social support network to help scholarship recipients in that city make a successful transition from high school to college -- and stay through graduation.