1000 paper cuts: A range of struggles mask as academic weakness among low-income college students

The serial events that lead so many low-income college students to drop out of college sometimes remind me of a recent DirecTV ad. In it, one thing leads to another until a straight-laced guy ends up alone, lying in a ditch.

The commercial is intended to be funny, but it parallels the compounding struggles faced by low-income college students in a painful way.

A common chain of events

    1. Student goes to college and hits the books.
    2. Student’s mom or dad gets hurt on the job.
    3. To cover living expenses and help his family, student starts working 30-plus hours a week.
    4. Long work hours cut into study time.
    5. As a result, student ends up failing two classes.
    6. Student’s GPA drops below 2.0.
    7. Student gets placed on academic probation.
    8. Student continues working to pay bills.
    9. Student remains on academic probation for more than two terms.
    10. Student no longer meets the criteria for Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP).
    11. Student loses financial aid.
    12. Without financial aid, student stops out of school.

(Cut forward two years: The metaphorical ditch.)

13. Student is still working, and school is nowhere in sight.

Without understanding the circumstances of this student, you could easily conclude that he wasn’t academically prepared. (He failed multiple classes and got put on academic probation, right??)  Or you could conclude that cost alone is the reason. (In fact, if you ask students in such circumstances why they dropped out of college, the short answer is often, “I can’t afford it.”)

What are we missing?

The reality is that the root causes of these students’ problems run much deeper than academics or affordability. Families who can’t provide support (or who may themselves need support); lack of awareness about the financial aid consequences of low grades; lack of awareness about which financial aid options are affordable over the long term and which carry hidden (and sometimes devastating) costs  —all play into low income students’ inability to succeed in school.  And all can mask as academic failure.

Looking for root causes; offering practical support

We’re failing these kids if all we do is offer them math or writing tutors and expect them to stay in school. Instead, we have to look at a more holistic set of indicators – grades, enrollment, situational hardships, financial red flags– on an ongoing basis so that we can offer the right kind of help at the right point in time. Web-based tools that incorporate a range of data types such as information gathered from students in surveys, National Student Clearinghouse enrollment data, and financial aid data offer promise on this front.  Looking at key indicators and simply making a phone call at the right time can help students identify unnoticed risks and obtain the supports they need to stay on track.

As tools that help us understand and address the issues facing these kids mature,  we have to commit to looking beyond grades and test scores, even beyond income, to see the real issues threatening these students’ futures. Today, too many high-potential students get left by the wayside.  And that’s not a situation that any of us should sanction.

As the Dell Scholars Program leader, Oscar oversees the foundation’s comprehensive college persistence services to improve the four-year college graduation rates of high-risk, low-income students. Read more of his posts here.