Equity & Diversity

War on Poverty College Programs Still Serving ‘Lucky Few’

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 05, 2014 13 min read
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What counts as success after high school graduation?

Today, in the 450-student Hampton High School, nestled in the picturesque but poor Cherokee National Forest on the northeastern tip of Tennessee, guidance counselor JoAnna Orr has a pragmatic view of success: She’ll take what she can get.

In a study of her attendance zone, Ms. Orr found that, 50 years after the War on Poverty spawned a succession of programs aimed at expanding the pipeline of low-income students entering higher education, college-going remains an elusive goal for many. Fewer than 5 percent of adults held a bachelor’s degree, the study showed. Of the 80 seniors who graduated from Hampton last spring, fewer than 10 had parents who had even been to college.

“We have increased our college-going attendance from single digits to something like 25 percent who will at least attempt it now,” Ms. Orr said, but it can still be tough for families with few resources or postsecondary experience to help their students plan for and succeed after high school. “The careers are changing rapidly, the set of skills needed for that job are changing. Do you have to have a bachelor’s degree to be a plumber? How do you know, how do you research that?”

Eastman Chemical, center, is one of the primary employers in the rural northeastern tip of Tennessee, but most jobs there require degrees.

As more middle-class jobs require postsecondary training, school districts face increasing scrutiny and accountability for their students’ college enrollment and success. Yet the federal programs originally intended to bridge high school and college, Upward Bound and Talent Search, were not designed to serve all students, and have not been given the resources to cope with the dynamic and exponentially growing need, particularly in rural communities like those around Johnson City.

Anthony P. Carnevale, the director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, in Washington, sees the push to get more students from poor or minority families to college breaking down, as more colleges become “selective” and gaps continue between students at selective institutions and those with open enrollment.

“The underlying socioeconomic structure of society always wins, unless you are willing to give people special treatment and additional resources just to improve upward mobility,” Mr. Carnevale said, adding that evidence shows the programs most effective for getting disadvantaged students to and through college usually are “labor intensive” and costly for their operators.

Raising the Bar

In 1964 and 1965, when Congress respectively passed the Economic Opportunity Act and the Higher Education Act to provide the foundation of modern student-loan and college-bridge programs, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced, “It is a truism that education is no longer a luxury. Education in this day and age is a necessity.”

It made for good headlines, but the high school diploma was seen at the time as the key to middle-class jobs, and gaps in college completion have been slower to close in the intervening years.

In 1960, 80 percent of adults in poverty—as well as 80 percent of all black Americans and 57 percent of all white Americans—had not graduated high school, and policymakers focused both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 to ensure all Americans earned that basic diploma. By contrast, only 8 percent of white students and 3 percent of black students completed college in 1960.

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Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, both high school graduation and college completion have dramatically increased: 80 percent of adults in poverty have a high school diploma, including equivalency diplomas, and 28.5 percent of Americans 25 and older had earned a bachelor’s degree by 2013. Yet the gap in postsecondary enrollment between high school graduates from high-income families and those from low-income families has barely budged: 29.7 percentage points in 1975 versus 29.9 percentage points in 2010, according to census figures.

Ellyn R. Artis, the higher education and program director at the Education Delivery Institute, a nonprofit focused on the K-12-to-college link, said racial gaps in college attainment loom large: 39 percent of white students earn a four-year degree, compared to 20 percent of black and 13 percent of Hispanic students. Nearly four out of five students in the highest income quartile earn a four-year college degree, compared to only 11 percent of bottom-quartile students.

Building a ‘Bridge’

Upward Bound and Talent Search were each created to provide academic, cultural, and social experiences for low-income students who would be the first generation in their families to attend college. In both programs, students must go through a rigorous application process to join, and participants receive a wide array of services depending on the site, from tutoring and access to challenging or dual-credit classes, to college visits and trips to museums, plays, and other cultural activities.

College-Access Programs: Where They Stand Now

Upward Bound

The program, created under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, provides grants to colleges, universities, and state or local community groups to promote college-going among high school students from low-income families and those in which neither parent has a postsecondary degree. Services differ from site to site, but generally students apply in 9th or 10th grade and may receive additional tutoring; cultural enrichment activities like museum visits; and guidance in the college selection, application, and financial aid process. Students also can get added instruction in literature, writing, mathematics, and science on college campuses after school, on weekends, and in summer.

Eligibility: All students in a program must be ages 13 to 19, either low-income or potentially the first generation to go to college; two-thirds of a program’s participants must be both low-income and first generation. As of 2014, a family of four making $35,775 per year in the contiguous 48 states, $44,730 in Alaska, or $41,145 in Hawaii would qualify. Students must have completed 8th grade.

Budget: As of fiscal 2013, Upward Bound has just under $250 million in grants for 816 awards, representing nearly 60,000 students. Its estimated fiscal 2014 funding is $266.7 million, with no new grants awarded. This is down from about $270 million in total funding a decade ago. The average cost per student is $4,170.

Talent Search

The program, part of the Higher Education Act of 1965, shares the same basic goal of Upward Bound, but it also extends to the middle school level and encourages partnerships among high schools, higher education institutions, and community groups to identify students in these earlier grades and ensure that they are on track for higher education. The grants support generally less-intensive programs than Upward Bound, but are still focused on academic tutoring and access to challenging coursework, career-aptitude tests, college academic and financial counseling, and campus visits.

Eligibility: All students in a particular project must be ages 11 to 27 and two-thirds must be low-income and potential first-generation college students. Family-income-eligibility guidelines are essentially the same as those for Upward Bound. Students must have completed 5th grade.

Budget: As of fiscal 2013, Talent Search has just under $128.1 million in grants for 452 awards, representing nearly 300,000 students. Its estimated fiscal 2014 funding is slightly more than $135.5 million with no new grants awarded. This is down from about $270 million in total funding a decade ago. The average cost per student is $428.

Pell Grant (Evolved From Education Opportunity Grant)

Another creation of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the program provides needs-based grants to low-income students for undergraduate- and some graduate-degree programs at about 5,400 colleges and universities. The grants can continue for 12 semesters.

Eligibility: Student aid is determined through analysis of student and family income and assets, as well as college-going costs, and whether the student attends full- or part-time.

Budget: From July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, the maximum grant is $5,730.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“For those first-generation students, there are big hurdles of, ‘What is college, even?’ ” said Jill M. Constantine, a vice president at Mathematica Policy Research and the co-principal investigator of the federal What Works Clearinghouse, who helped develop a federal guide on college access. “Just feel-good, buddy mentoring is not great for that. You need much more targeted mentoring about how to apply, a site visit. ... There’s a lot of good evidence now that support in completing those steps is important.”

In a federal evaluation, the Talent Search program proved effective in walking more students through the process and paperwork of applying for admission, financial aid, and other paperwork that can derail first-generation college-goers, said Ms. Constantine. “It’s not just about postsecondary institutions finding students out there and saying, ‘We’ll give you some support and send you off to college and assume it’s all going to work out OK,’ ” Ms. Constantine said. “You need a bridge.”

Ronnie Dale Gross, the executive director of TRIO programs at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, wants to make that bridge for the students in Hampton High and other area high schools the programs serve. His own parents left school after 9th grade, he recalled, and “Their goal for me was to finish high school.”

When recruiting students in the 1980s and 1990s, “we had to talk to parents and students a lot about the benefits of college,” Mr. Gross said. “The generation after that, we didn’t have to sell them on college as much. Now, parents get really out of sorts because they know college is important, but they don’t know how to support [students] or what to do.”

But the college-access programs in the War on Poverty were never intended to serve a large majority of students. For example, today Upward Bound serves only about 6 percent of eligible students, and those students include only first-generation, low-income students who take it upon themselves to apply.

Serving a Broader Group

“They were intended to solve a real injustice of students who were academically ready to go to college, but just were low income and needed information,” Ms. Constantine said. “When this started there was not an expectation that everybody would go to college, so why would they focus on struggling students?”

In a way, Upward Bound and Talent Search were made for a school like Dobyns-Bennett High School, less than an hour north of Hampton High, in Kingsport. The 2,100-student school is a regular on the Newsweek “Top High Schools” list. It offers 22 Advanced Placement classes, and most students graduate with nine hours of college credit. Seventy percent go on to higher education.

“You have to push yourself and make it known to the guidance counselors that you want to go farther in life.” —Jacquelyn Coleman, senior, Tennessee High School, Bristol, Tenn.

But even at Dobyns-Bennett, the high school graduation rate for low-income students, at 81 percent, is more than 10 percentage points lower than that of their wealthier peers, and the rate of overall college completion ranges from 40 to 60 percent from class to class.

“I believe the academic foundation is critical, and the earlier and better the quality, the better that student will be in college,” said Dobyns-Bennett Principal Chris Hampton. But he added: “There’s a level of mentoring and advising that doesn’t go on in public high schools—that doesn’t go on in this public high school. There’s a social equity that we struggle to provide. We do have some colleges who do a ‘FAFSA night,’ but if the student doesn’t know they need to do that, it doesn’t matter how many times we announce it on the loudspeaker.”

Hunter Malone, a senior at Tennessee High School in Bristol, north of Johnson City, said his school also has “college nights” and advertises the state’s new initiative to provide two years of free community college tuition. But, he said, it’s easy for seniors to get wrapped up in sports and other activities that have deadlines and demands now, and not think about planning for after graduation.

“You have to push yourself and make it known to the guidance counselors that you want to go farther in life,” said Jacquelyn Coleman, also a Tennessee High senior.

Both students are in Upward Bound, and Mr. Hampton, an Upward Bound alumnus himself, said the program was “probably the single most influential experience of my life, because it allowed me to reinvent myself with a new peer group ... where everyone was coming in on a level playing field.”

“The reality is harsh, because people want you to do well, so they do push you hard. It can be exhausting.” —Zander Bennett, junior, Science Hill High School, Johnson City, Tenn.

Yet critics argue Upward Bound—at more than $4,000 per student, on average—has not been shown to be more cost-effective than less-intensive college-access programs. In part, this could be because Upward Bound uses an intensive application process, meaning that the program is likely helping the students who were already very motivated to attend college. A long-term federal evaluation of the program by Mathematica found limited benefits, though a former federal program manager has critiqued the study as giving a few of the sites too much weight.

In any case, Upward Bound’s usefulness applies only to those who get in, and many of the districts around Johnson City have waiting lists.

“At the margin, sure, these programs help some lucky young people, but the ones who participate are just that,” Mr. Carnevale said. “They are the exceptions that prove the rule.”

Economic Mobility

The Pew Economic Mobility Project found in 2013 that among those who started out among the lowest 20 percent of income in America, adults who earned a college degree were more than five times more likely to move to a higher income bracket—and 2.5 times more likely to reach the middle class—than those who did not finish college.

“We know the business of providing upward mobility is first provided by the economy, but what reduces the upward mobility that the economy can provide is the certification required for those jobs,” Mr. Carnevale said. “The education requirement has become one more brick in the wall.”

While college financial aid dramatically expanded since the Higher Education Act launched the predecessor of today’s Pell Grants, the K-12 and higher education systems continued to operate almost entirely independently of each other for generations. Now, that’s starting to change. As part of the conditions of receiving federal stimulus money after the 2008 economic crisis, almost all states have linked their longitudinal data systems to be able to track students from preschool through college. The more than 40 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have received waivers from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind law must report the number and percentage of students who attend higher education after high school. And the office for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education now collects data on and investigates so-called “resource inequities,” including gaps in poor or minority students’ participation in Advanced Placement and dual-credit courses and college-planning and mentoring programs.

"You have to have a good academic base, but you also have to have the social skills to get the job done in college, to communicate with people." —Cody Palmer, sophomore, Sullivan Central High School, Blountville, Tenn.

Maryland and Hawaii now even count college-going rates as an additional measure of school success for federal and state accountability purposes, and Nevada likewise holds schools accountable for whether their students must take remedial classes once they get to higher education.

Tennessee doesn’t have that kind of accountability, but its Tennessee Promise initiative has focused high school educators with a guarantee that all high school graduates beginning with the class of 2015 will receive a senior-year college-application mentor and two years of free community college or technical school.

“A decade ago you didn’t even have the data or infrastructure to do the research [on best practices for college bridge programs], and now we do have it. I feel like we’re right on the verge with the right will and resources to crack this problem,” Ms. Constantine said. “I think the accountability on high schools will increase. That’s where there is more federal and state leverage. … But I do think for improving persistence what is going to have to happen is postsecondary institutions themselves will need to become more accountable.”

Mr. Carnevale, however, argued that holding colleges more accountable for the percentage of students who graduate and go on to get well-paying jobs is backfiring on low-income and minority students: “If you don’t have higher grad rates, faster graduation, and better jobs, you die [as a college]. And the only way you are going to do that on a declining budget is to get better—and in this case that means more affluent and white—students.”

Dividing Path

More than 80 percent of new white college freshmen between 1995 and 2009 attended one of the 468 most selective four-year universities, while only 9 percent of black and 13 percent of Hispanic new freshmen enrolled at those schools. By contrast, the huge growth in community colleges and other two-year programs has been driven by minority students: Roughly seven out of 10 new black and Hispanic college students attended open-access two- or four-year colleges from 1995 to 2009, while there was no growth in white students at those institutions.

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But there’s a catch: Mr. Carnevale and others have found that community colleges typically have fewer resources and higher dropout rates than more-selective schools. In fact, top performers who scored 1200 or better on the SAT college-entrance exam who attended open-access two- or four-year colleges completed their degrees a little more than half the time—28 percentage points less often than students who scored 1000 to 1099 on the SAT but who attended the most selective schools.

Mr. Carnevale found that 170 colleges that offered open enrollment in 1990 have selective admissions today. He pointed to his own, highly selective Georgetown University, which requires a 1300 score on the SAT for admission: “We could let kids in at 1100 and 80 percent would graduate,” he said. “But our grad rate is 96 percent. There is a socially constructed reality here ... the competition for prestige that brings money, and that ensures you aren’t going to get diversification by class or race.”

Colleges with higher graduation rates coupled with more selective admissions often are seen as more academically rigorous and are rated better in college rankings used by students, parents, and guidance counselors in choosing colleges. Graduation rates could become even more of a driver as the U.S. Department of Education pushes for more higher education accountability, which could lead colleges to tighten admissions, Mr. Carnevale said.

Degrees of Success

Starla C. Bright, a junior at Dobyns-Bennett, understands that dynamic—but she doesn’t care. “I know that for me to do something big I have to go through college,” she said. “I really, really want to go to Stanford [University] but honestly, I’ll go wherever takes me. It doesn’t matter what name is on the degree as long as I earned this.”

“My parents didn't graduate high school, my older siblings didn’t go to college ... In high school I thought, ‘There’s got to be more to life than this.” —Hunter Malone, senior, Tennessee High School, Bristol, Tenn.

And her mother, Janet Bright, a custodian at the school, urged her daughter to join Upward Bound to help Starla find the success in college that eluded her.

Back at Hampton High School, Ms. Orr, the guidance counselor, elaborated on her own measuring stick for success: She holds herself accountable every time she eats at a local diner. Sometimes she feels bad, running into a former student working there who she thought would go on to college—but sometimes, seeing a student worker who nearly dropped out of high school and already has two children, she feels proud that the student at least has a steady job.

“I’m a successful counselor if I can break a welfare chain, if I can make a student a tax-paying citizen and not a tax draw,” she said. “It depends on where they’re coming from, what you perceive is a success.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as ‘Lucky Few’ Served by War on Poverty College Programs


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