How colleges can help low-income students succeed

Students at Baruch College in New York City. Photo courtesy of Baruch College.

(NewsNation) — Going to college has long been seen as the path to the middle class. Indeed, college graduates on average earn much more money over the course of their lifetime than non-college graduates.

But as higher education grows less and less affordable, lower-income students face even more barriers to attending and graduating from some sort of postsecondary program. For many students, the possibility of mountains of student debt and uncertain job prospects has them avoiding college altogether.

Yet some colleges, universities, and other postsecondary programs are still succeeding in taking in students from lower-income families, giving them an affordable education and graduating them into middle-class jobs.

These colleges excel in promoting what’s called social or economic mobility — which is moving people up the economic ladder.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) created a return on investment ranking measuring mobility based on a school’s number of low-income Pell grant students, its graduation rate and its graduates’ income levels after their graduation.

Here’s some of what we can learn from these schools.

Offer Affordable Programs That TEACH Practical Skills

“Colleges that are making a difference in social mobility are typically keeping costs low, making sure that people that they admit graduate, and they’re typically offering programs where you get hired out in the workplace,” said Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy at CEW.

Some of those schools don’t look like traditional four-year colleges, he explained.

“Certainly there are some good ones that do well that offer Bachelor’s degrees but we highlighted the number of institutions that primarily offer Associate’s degrees or certificates, postsecondary credentials in fields where there’s almost an immediate payoff in the workplace,” he said.

One of those schools is the Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center, which ranked 18th based on its CEW score.

The Pennsylvania-based school offers numerous programs for different age levels, including an adult program called Career in a Year, which aims to have students educated in under a year’s time.

Tricia Rummell, who supervises adult education at the school, said, “In that time, we focus on getting them the ample skills that they need to be successful. Now we’re strictly a career and technical educational school so all of our programs have … a vocational aspect to them.”

Students can learn skills like welding, driving heavy equipment or practical nursing.

Rummell estimated that 85% to 90% of their students find work within three months of graduation.


Lower-income students are particularly vulnerable to dropping out of college, which can lead them to accrue student debt without receiving the value of a degree.

That’s a problem Deborah Santiago, the Chief Executive Officer of Excelencia in Education, has worked on for years. Many Latinos come from lower-income families and tend to have lower graduation rates than white students, and Santiago’s organization collects strategies to boost their college completion rates.

One way the program retains and supports students is by establishing cohort groups where a group of students do activities with each other (such as a class) and stay connected with each other for a sustained period of time (such as their first year in college).

“We’re seeing students, especially first-gen, they’d rather trust and talk to each other rather than an institutional representative,” she said.

One example the organization highlights is Cardinal First at North Central College in Illinois, a program for first-generation students that connects them with peers, staff, and faculty who provide mentoring and support.

Those mentors are drawn from both first-generation upperclassmen and faculty who were themselves first-generation students. Statistics released by the university showed over 90% of first-generation students who participated in Cardinal First were retained from their first year to the second year.

learning outside the classroom

Baruch College, which is part of the City University of New York system, consistently ranks as one of the best colleges in America for social mobility.

Ellen Stein, director of the Starr Career Development Center at the college, credits this not only to the coursework at the college but the range of programs designed to get students ready for careers.

These include a range of leadership development programs and a pre-law internship program where the school provides stipends so students from modest backgrounds can take internships regardless of pay. In Stein’s view, it’s important to continue to offer close support for students beyond their first year of college.

“There’s a lot of attention in the first year for students, but in the second year, that’s the time where a lot of people (can) drop out,” Stein said.


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