Strong Correlation Continues Between Poverty, Graduation Rates

Posted By Courtney Price Davis on November 10, 2016 at 6:52 pm
Strong Correlation Continues Between Poverty, Graduation Rates

Students from low-income schools attend, graduate college at much lower rate

A recent study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that students from high poverty schools are much less likely to enroll of in college immediately following high school or complete a degree within six years of high school graduation.

While the data might not be surprising, it’s a trend that many organizations are working to reverse, on several different levels.

The data

The study looked at a voluntary sample of high schools from all 50 U.S. states from high school graduating classes of 2009 and 2012-15. Poverty levels were judged based on the number of students enrolled who qualify for free or reduced lunch. High poverty schools are those with more than 75% of students receiving free or reduced lunch.

The data show that 51% of students from high poverty public schools entered college in the fall following graduation, compared with a rate of 76% for low-poverty schools.

Students enrolled in college immediately following graduation, Class of 2015

School type Percent
High Poverty 51%
Low Poverty 76%
Low Income 54%
Higher Income 69%
High Minority 57%
Low Minority 68%


There’s a much wider gap between high and low poverty schools in terms of students who actually complete college within six years. For students in low-poverty schools, the college completion rate was 34 percentage points higher than those in impoverished schools.

College completion rate six years after high school, Class of 2009

School type Percent
High Poverty 18%
Low Poverty 52%
Low Income 24%
Higher Income 45%
High Minority 28%
Low Minority 48%


Melissa Connelly is vice president of program at OneGoal, a nonprofit organization that works to close the college enrollment and completion gaps between high and low-income students. She says the data from the NSC study wasn’t a surprise.

“The fact that students from low-income communities have a drastically lower graduation rate than their peers from high-income communities is exactly what so many organizations like OneGoal have been working to address for a long time,” she says. “From the costs of application to the increasing costs of tuition, there are a multitude of variables that often become barriers for low-income students to attend and graduate from college.”

What’s being done about it

Advocates across the country have taken different approaches to addressing the gap.

Communities In Schools works with students in kindergarten through 12th grade to keep students in school and progressing to the next grade each year.

OneGoal partners with schools to help kids graduate and follows students from their junior year of high school through their first year in college to encourage a good school foundation.

Kipp New Jersey is a network of charter schools in Newark and Camden with more than 88% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. The program focuses on supporting students’ needs and putting them on a path for college success with more targeted education as a school-wide priority, not just on a case-by-case basis.

All three organizations agree on at least one point: the problem isn’t just about money.

“When a child comes to school hungry, without a warm coat and shoes that fit, or badly needing a pair of glasses, that young person cannot focus on what’s happening in the classroom,” says Dale Erquiaga, president and CEO of Communities In Schools. “They are then more likely to fall behind on their classwork, miss several days of school and as a consequence earn poor grades. … They’re lagging behind academically and perhaps struggling socially. These are the students who are more likely to drop out and fail to graduate on time, if at all.”

There are other factors, as well, says Jessica Gersh, director of alumni support for the KIPP Through College program.

“There are many things (that affect graduation rates) such as academic preparedness, whether or not you’re the first in your family to attend, and other factors…,” she says.

To overcome the disadvantage low-income children have at the outset, advocates offer support throughout a student’s academic career.

“To close this gap we need to address the immediate barriers that these communities face, such as cost of college and lack of resources for navigating the college and financial application processes,” Connelly says.

Students in OneGoal get one-on-one help beginning in their junior year of high school with steps including applying and selecting a school, navigating financial aid, registering for classes and learning how to study independently.

How it’s working

For students who get that kind of targeted support, the results are promising.

“We do know that by placing a caring adult in the lives of these students, we can improve their attendance, behavior, course performance, and graduation rates,” Erquiaga says. “The data bears this out: 78% of students who received Integrated Students Supports from CIS improved their attendance improvement goals. 89% met their behavior goals. 85% met their academic improvement goals and again, 93% of our eligible seniors graduated.”

OneGoal says 78% of its students are pursuing or have earned a college degree.

“Only through the collaboration of the schools, families, students and partners dedicated to removing those barriers can real progress be made,” Connelly says.

Kipp reports that 75% of its eighth-graders went on to college.

“There is a growing acknowledgement in this country poor students in urban, suburban and rural districts need these types of supports,” Erquiaga says. “The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act demonstrates that our policymakers understand this need as well. … We have a unique opportunity to provide Integrated Student Supports or wraparound services to help improve student outcomes, lower the dropout rate and raise graduation rates. I’m very hopeful that things are getting better.”

Courtney Price Davis
Courtney has a journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and has worked at newspapers and magazines as a reporter, designer, copy editor and managing editor. She started a weekly newspaper at age 23 and was executive editor of Lake Norman Publications outside of Charlotte, N.C.

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