Connecting Teenage Decisions and College Graduation

Last month we wrote about one of the barriers that children from historically disenfranchised backgrounds encounter: the process of enrolling in college. Kids without access to a parent or adult with college experience are often required to perform the leadership and administrative responsibilities of enrollment on their own. For many, these hurdles become insurmountable, so most of the kids receiving their baccalaureate degrees come from families in the top 20% of earners, but there’s an even bigger factor that might play a role in these disparate graduation rates: choosing what college to attend. College choice is important, especially since graduation rates can vary dramatically between institutions.

Overcoming the Odds

Understanding how one small town helped high school students find success at a prestigious institution can be a starting point for eliminating this graduation gap.

Las Animas County, Colorado is located on the border of New Mexico and is sparsely populated. Just under 16,000 people live in 5,000 square miles. But two kids from Las Animas graduated with baccalaureate degrees from Princeton University last year, Arthur MacWaters and Nicholas Ruybalid. Another Las Animas high schooler, Sally Jane Ruybalid recently enrolled and is a member of the class of 2021. She is the 30th kid to enroll in the last 54 years.

Las Animas’ advantage comes from the Mary John Goree Scholarship. The Goree Princeton scholarship is a location-based scholarship that pays a full-ride to any student from Las Animas who can gain acceptance. Every student in Las Animas knows that if they work really hard, they have a real chance to attend one of the most selective schools in the world.

Another profound fact about the students to attend Princeton from Las Animas is the graduation rate. Every single student to receive the scholarship has graduated with a degree. This happens in spite of many of the educational and social challenges experienced once they arrive at Princeton. These kids went from a county of 16,000 to an undergraduate class at Princeton of about 5,000 students, many of whom had received instruction at some of the most prestigious high schools in the country.

The Colorado Sun interviewed some of the Las Animas Princeton students about their experiences. Descriptions range from “scary,” to “overwhelming” when they describe the social and academic environment. And yet, every single one of them graduated.

Why do kids from historically disenfranchised backgrounds graduate at lower rates?

If the Las Animas students that attend Princeton are finding such success, why are so many other institutions across the country struggling to get their poorer students to graduate?

Princeton has one of the highest graduation rates in the country. The university helps students plan a path to success. Less selective colleges do not always share the same pervasive culture and vision of graduation for their students, and that’s especially true with 2-year programs and for-profit institutions. 4-year nonprofit colleges and universities have higher rates of graduation overall compared to less selective for-profits.

Now many might assume that because 2-year and for-profit institutions often enroll higher proportions of students from low-income backgrounds, and may see that as the reason why they graduate fewer than 40% of students, compared to nearly 67% at four-year institutions. Lower income students are less likely to graduate, right?

Let’s put that assumption to bed. Higher ed graduation rates aren’t as closely correlated with the proportion of students below the poverty line as one might assume. The differences in graduation rates vary drastically from one institution to the next, and one variable stands out. Graduation rates are highly correlated with the resources higher education institutions commit towards getting their students to graduate.

Institutions that focus on getting students to graduate often succeed in that goal by allocating resources that will insure that outcome, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but this obvious point lays bare our biases. We assume that an institution’s graduation rate is correlated with the number of low-income students they serve, even though that is not true. People succeed within successful systems, and fail within failing systems, regardless of demographics and economics. The difference isn’t the student body’s composition, it’s the institution. The institutions that create high-quality relationships with their students to foster success often help those students achieve success.

A Simple Problem and Solution that Needs Your Assistance

Many barriers prevent low-income students from getting to college graduation, but one cause with a fairly easy solution, is to help college applicants choose institutions that support their students through graduation day.

Understanding a success story like Las Animas shows us that with a plan and guidance, all students, despite economic backgrounds, can find colleges that will support them socially, academically and financially. We need to be the bridge between strong collegiate institutions and the students we know will find success in higher education.