The Tools of the Rich Propel Poor Kids Through College
Educators have long struggled to help students like Tiaja Harley earn bachelor’s degrees, the surest route to the middle class. Raised by a single mother who earned minimum wage, Harley loved to read and was good at math and science in elementary school. Students like her do get into college, but the vast majority drop out.
Now a growing body of research and fresh data show that social and emotional gaps, rather than academic ones, are holding back many bright students, especially children of color. Give them some of the tools of the privileged — early and steady involvement with the professions and professionals — and many will not only get into college but through it.
This approach is gaining currency as it attracts support from philanthropists. Wall Street executives such as Rick Rieder, a chief investment officer at BlackRock Inc., have signed on. So has the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent $120 million on programs linking schools more directly to careers for low-income students.
Anthony Jack, a Harvard sociologist who has studied first-generation students at elite colleges, said his research confirms the value of these initiatives.
“Lower-income students come to college without practice at close relations with professional adults,” noted Jack, who was a low-income, Black undergraduate at Amherst. “Their parents’ jobs rely on not making a fuss. That’s how you keep a job like being a janitor. But these kids are thrown into an environment where they are expected to vocalize and connect.”
Early results from a range of school systems — charter, parochial and public — are striking. From a third to one-half of the high school graduates finished college in six years. That’s approaching the rate of students from the top 25% of families socioeconomically, and it’s two to four times better than those from the poorest. Harley is among those who succeeded.