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Out of the Mouths of Low-Income Students

“I am really more interested in what is going on in the world,” was the comment of a shy student who eased her way up to me after I presented at the Climate Lecture on Equality of Educational Opportunity at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. As I continued to engage this student, she described herself as a “low-income, first-generation White girl” who had grown up in a rural Tennessee town.


This student — along with the majority of her classmates attending the lecture —characterized the descriptive profile of the “low-income students” who attend high-poverty schools in the Special Section of The Condition of Education 2010 report released last month. The study describes these students as “children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level [who] are eligible for free meals [and the students] from families with incomes that are above 130 and up to 185 percent of the poverty level [who] are eligible for reduced-price meals.” The study indicates that only 28 percent of the high school graduates from high-poverty high schools attend a four-year institution, compared with 52 percent of the high school graduates from low-poverty schools. 


Why are these data important? Given these statistics, it was significant to lecture before nearly 30 low-income, primarily first-generation students from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds who graduated from predominantly high-poverty high schools and were now enrolled in a four-year college. These students had (and still must) overcome many odds. They were among the few students who have prevailed over the vicissitudes of their early life to continue endeavoring on an educational path toward a future of success.


What was even more significant were the students’ responses to my comments about how the United States was no longer the world leader in postsecondary degree attainment. I shared with them how, according to the comparison data from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Condition of Education 2008 report, the United States ranks 10th internationally. Of course, those of us who are higher education professionals have heard these statistics time and time again. And we have all become familiar with President Barack Obama’s mandate for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.


However, the UT Knoxville students — like many Americans —  did not know much about these realities and grim predictions. I caught the student’s attention when I stressed to them that the United States won’t reach the president’s education goals without them.


It was fascinating to observe their reactions as they began to process how, against the backdrop of this global context, they must graduate with a degree to help our country become the education leader internationally and to transform our national economic prosperity.


The students responded to this challenge with poignant statements such as:


“(I learned) we play a pivotal role as students in today’s education reform…without our success… the reform will not happen.”


 “(It’s) more… inspiring to stay in school and continue pursuing my dreams for myself and my country.”


“We must understand ourselves before we can help others. It starts with us first. So, I will do what I have to do and in the process help others.”


“I understand that my success that I have here at college affects more than just me.”


These dynamic comments inspired me because of how the students exuded a renewed sense of purpose for completing college. They seemed to embrace a more relevant sense of patriotism. 


However, the mantle of responsibility begins with us as education professionals to truly believe and treat low-income students as Americans. We need to be more intentional and strategic about helping them to understand their role in the education reform efforts.  Too much is at stake if we don’t.


Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith is the director of The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, which conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to encourage policymakers, educators, and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation and disabled college students.



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