Low-Income Students Face Many Collegiate Obstacles

By Catherine Groux
Posted December 27, 2012 11:00 AM

Low-income students often face many challenges in college.
Low-income students often face many challenges in college.
In 2011, about 27.5% of 24-year-olds held a bachelor's degree, Postsecondary Education Opportunity reports. However, during this year, only about 10.4% of young Americans from the bottom quartile of family income completed this four-year credential, compared to 71.4% of individuals from the top quartile.

As these numbers show, low-income students are often discouraged from applying to college due to its high cost. At the same time, those who choose to enroll in college often face many challenges before earning their bachelor's degree.

An Uphill Climb

The New York Times recently highlighted the stories of Angelica Gonzales, Melissa O'Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, who were extremely talented high school students only four years ago. At the age of 18, the three girls from Texas vowed to break their families' line of poverty, go to college and make a name for themselves.

Today, four years later, none of the women have a bachelor's degree, despite the fact that each of them enrolled in a two- or four-year school. Gonzales, for example, left Emory University with crushing debt of more than $60,000 and now works at a furniture store in her hometown of Galveston, Texas.

Although each of the three women showed they could succeed in college academically, the obstacles they met in school proved too much to handle. While working toward bachelor's degrees, the women were often more concerned with how they could make ends meet financially, and frequently suffered from campus alienation, boyfriend troubles and little guidance from friends or family.

An All-Too-Common Scenario

Unfortunately, the fate of the three girls from Texas is not an unusual one for low-income students, creating a large education gap throughout the nation.

"Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer - the place where upward mobility gets started," Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, told the Times. "But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It's very disheartening."

For many low-income students, not earning a college degree can have devastating consequences. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce states that a bachelor's degree is the "surest path to a middle class job," while other studies show that college graduates tend to have higher salaries and better job prospects than high school graduates, even in a struggling economy. Therefore, without higher education, many Americans are left trapped in an endless cycle of financial strain. 

"The vast majority of new jobs require higher skills and if you don’t have a college degree, your chances of being in the middle class are visibly diminished," said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of the Lumina Foundation. "There is a high probability that you’ll be poor without some form of postsecondary education … " 

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