Thinking Out Loud: College Graduation for Low-Income, First-Generation Students of Color

Lately in our office we have been dwelling on an oldie but goodie, an article from about two years ago by Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine titled “Who Gets to Graduate?” In this article Tough highlights how low-income first generation students of color entering college commonly experience feelings of not belonging or thoughts such as “they are not good enough to be there” regardless of how well they performed in high school or on standardized tests such as the SATs. The fact is, of college freshmen that are from families in the bottom half of the U.S. income distribution, roughly only 25 percent will obtain a college degree by the time they are 24; whereas nearly 90 percent of college freshmen from families in the top U.S. income quartile will obtain one.

While typical responses and interventions to these staggering differences in college graduation rates include methods such as remedial classes, they have very little, if any, positive effect on freshman students from the bottom half of the US income distribution—remedial classes, while well-intentioned, tend to have an opposite effect. Whereas more affluent students with college educated parents tend to see failures and difficulties during their college experience as small road bumps that can be managed, students from more underserved backgrounds do not always have the same tools or social context to ground them in the thinking that a poor test score or struggling in a course is not a sign of one’s own self-worth and capabilities, but often a challenge to be met.

In his article, Tough also provides an overview of research that began at the University of Texas at Austin a few years ago that was meant to address the phenomenon of the glaring disparity in college graduations rates. The experiment at the University used approaches that include providing at-risk freshmen with positive interventions in the form of smaller classes, more one-on-one time with professors and teaching assistants, reflections from seniors that were in similar situations their freshmen year, and pertinent academic material. In other words, supporting new anxious students with perspective from more seasoned ones and helping allay anxiety through shared experiences and positive reinforcement. The smaller classes in particular weren’t remedial per se and taught the students the same exact material, just in a different way, which lead to much higher test scores.

We are intrigued by Paul Tough’s article and the research at UoT at Austin because research and evaluation focused on youth development has yet to find ways to measure and communicate the transformation that happens when a young person is in an environment where they are valued as assets and encouraged to bring their perspective to the experience. Young people’s development or social consciousness is enhanced when they are surrounded by relationships, contexts and support systems that nurture their development.1 Therefore, in programs where youth have some sort of ‘transformative’ experience, participants show traits such as higher self-worth or self-advocacy. And it is this transformation that allows programs to produce high outcomes on their other intended goals, like high school and college graduation rates.

We are pleased to see that many of our youth development grantees recognize the importance of transformative experiences and are exploring research to help capture and measure this. But, we need more organizations to take on the role of being thought leaders and create opportunities for program constituents and researchers to work in cohesion to create a body of evidence that we can all learn from.

1) Benson, Peter L., Peter C. Scales, Stephen F. Hamilton, and Arturo Sesma. 2007. Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications. In Handbook of Child Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Key Principles - Positive Youth Development | N.d.