When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.
The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.
When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability. Rich kids do better on the SAT, so of course they do better in college. But ability turns out to be a relatively minor factor behind this divide. If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores. Take students like Vanessa Brewer, who do moderately well on standardized tests — scoring between 1,000 and 1,200 out of 1,600 on the SAT. If those students come from families in the top-income quartile, they have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating with a four-year degree. If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.
The good news for Vanessa is that she had improved her odds by enrolling in a highly selective college. Many low-income students “undermatch,” meaning that they don’t attend — or even apply to — the most selective college that would accept them. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more selective the college you choose, the higher your likelihood of graduating. But even among the highly educated students of U.T., parental income and education play a huge role in determining who will graduate on time. An internal U.T. report published in 2012 showed that only 39 percent of first-generation students (meaning students whose parents weren’t college graduates) graduated in four years, compared with 60 percent whose parents both graduated from college. So Vanessa was caught in something of a paradox. According to her academic record, she had all the ability she needed to succeed at an elite college; according to the demographic statistics, she was at serious risk of failing.
But why? What was standing in her way? This year, for the first time, the University of Texas is trying in a serious way to answer that question. The school’s administrators are addressing head-on the problems faced by students like Vanessa. U.T.’s efforts are based on a novel and controversial premise: If you want to help low-income students succeed, it’s not enough to deal with their academic and financial obstacles. You also need to address their doubts and misconceptions and fears. To solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student.