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Socioeconomic status a major factor in college completion

Critiques of Boston schools ignore national trend of low completion among low-income students

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Socioeconomic status a major factor in college completion
BPS valedictorians from the class of 2016. (Mayor's Office photo by Isabel Leon)

In the two weeks since the Boston Globe published a series on the divergent paths of Boston Public Schools valedictorians, the stories of individual students’ struggles to get through college and navigate adult life have sparked critiques of the city’s school system.

Through interviews with 93 of 123 valedictorians graduating between 2005 and 2007, Globe reporters found that 25 percent had not graduated from college within six years, that 40 percent earned less than $50,000 a year and that four had experienced homelessness.

On the WGBH Radio news talk show Boston Public Radio, City Councilor Andrea Campbell suggested the failure of some of the valedictorians to obtain a degree hinged on limited access to quality K-12 schools in Boston. Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker cited the disparate life outcomes of the valedictorians a “major indictment of the Boston Public Schools.”

But clearly economic disadvantages loomed large as the featured students moved on to college. The Globe shared no data on how many of the valedictorians dropped out because of academic challenges versus how many left college because of financial or other life challenges.

There is a national debate among education reform activists on the extent to which poverty influences education outcomes. While there are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate, data show a clear correlation between economic status and college completion.

Nationwide, one-third of Americans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, the highest percentage ever, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But there are vast disparities within that figure. Just 23.3 percent of blacks have a degree from a four-year college and just 16.4 percent of Latinos, versus Asian and non-Hispanic whites, 55.9 percent and 37.3 percent of whom hold bachelor’s degrees, respectively.

When socioeconomic status is taken into account, the division is equally stark. Just 14 percent of students with low socioeconomic status attained a college degree within eight years of high school graduation, compared to 60 percent of students with high socioeconomic status, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Among the Boston valedictorians, that pattern may have played itself out along the exam school/open enrollment school divide. While all of the valedictorians from exam schools graduated from college within six years of enrolling, it’s also worth noting that those schools enroll student populations far different from that of the BPS system as a whole.

At Boston Latin School, the most prestigious of the exam schools, just 16.8 percent of students enrolled in the 2017-2018 school year were considered economically disadvantaged, according to data from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools. Compare that to 58 percent for the districts as a whole, and 72 percent for Boston English High.

In her book “When Grit Isn’t Enough,” former Boston Arts Academy headmaster Linda Nathan painted a sobering picture of the obstacles facing low-income students navigating an increasingly predatory college environment, using stories of her former students to highlight the many pitfalls these students face as they make their way through higher education.

“Data repeatedly show how poverty, social class, race, and parents’ educational attainment more directly influence an individual’s success and possible earnings than any individual effort,” Nathan says. “We clearly do not have a level playing field, but this belief is all but impossible to challenge.”

The students profiled in the Globe series who didn’t graduate faced a range of problems. Many from open enrollment BPS schools cited high school coursework that left them ill-prepared for the rigors of college. Others cited personal challenges including unplanned pregnancies and a lack of family support.

It’s worth noting that the UMass system, where most of the state’s high school graduates who go on to college receive their degrees, saw its budget cut by 31 percent between 2001 and 2016, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. The state’s greatest engine of economic opportunity seems to be shutting its doors on the very students who rely on it most.

The Globe series provided an example. Ebony Brown, a 2006 valedictorian at Boston Day and Evening Academy, attended Salem State College with a scholarship that didn’t cover room and board and faced homelessness during her sophomore year when she had to leave her grandmother’s house. She withdrew from Salem State and never found her way back.

“A cascade of bad luck, menial jobs, eviction, and depression trapped her; a vocational training program in 2016 helped her attain some stability, but at 30 she yearns for something more,” the Globe reported.

The Globe’s Valedictorians Project provided a poignant reminder of the challenges facing BPS high school graduates in Boston. But the rigor of the school system’s curriculum is only a part of the problem. Ignoring the socioeconomic challenges to college completion in any analysis of BPS graduates omits an important dimension of the story.

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