TOPICS > Education > Rethinking College

Why poor students drop out even when financial aid covers the cost

August 17, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Among the many students heading off to college this fall, those from wealthier backgrounds are far more likely to graduate after four years. Hari Sreenivasan takes a look at why that occurs, and what one university is doing to combat this statistic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next tonight, we begin our special week-long series Rethinking College.

Across the country this month, thousands of students will head off to college, but statistics show that many will never make it to graduation, a vast number of them from low-income families.

This week, the NewsHour looks at five experiments aimed at closing what is being called the graduation gap.

We start with the University of Texas at Austin.

DAVID LAUDE, Professor, University of Texas at Austin: There is a forward reaction, endothermic or exothermic? Endothermic.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Laude teaches chemistry at the University of Texas in Austin.

graduation-gapDAVID LAUDE: So, you’re going to see a problem similar to this on the test.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But his most valuable experiment lately has nothing to do with science. It’s about why some of his students succeed and why others fail.

DAVID LAUDE: It occurred to me that I had spent many decades of my life as a teacher not passing students. And then I thought, wow, I was responsible for lots of students who failed, me. I’m the one who made them not become a doctor. I’m the one who made them not become an engineer.

Which of the following statements of fact are true?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Laude took a position as vice provost and dug deep into the university’s student records to create a profile of the students who dropped out.

DAVID LAUDE: And so what is the correct answer?

HARI SREENIVASAN: What he found was startling. The big difference wasn’t how hard a student studied or how well they did in high school. The most important indicator was a student’s household income.

So is there a correlation between your family income and how well you do in college?

DAVID LAUDE: When you line up a student most likely to graduate in four years and you line up the students who have the greatest economic need, there is a substantial correlation. Students with economic need have a 30 percent chance of graduating in four years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: National studies reflect the same divide. Students from wealthy families graduate at more than twice the rate of students from poor families, including students who share the same SAT scores.

DAVID LAUDE: Being an optimist, I think we can fix that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So why do low-income students drop out, even when financial aid covers their costs?

Laude says one of the major reasons is because they don’t feel they fit in. U.T. freshman Sam Olayiwola, who was accepted in all of the seven colleges he applied to, offers this insight.

SAM OLAYIWOLA, Student, University of Texas at Austin: A lot of people who are at U.T. come from these high-income families. I mean, they’re smart as well. You feel different. You might have different mannerisms. That difference is really — it’s in the back of your mind. Getting into that mental head space can, I don’t know, be very — could be damaging.

DAVID LAUDE: You have to be able to disrupt the notion that there is some sort of doubt, some sort of hesitancy in believing that it’s going to work.

STUDENT: We have gone over several questions that made you reflect on what you have accomplished.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With support from the University of Texas, Professor Laude created the University Leadership Network, a program that works with 500 incoming freshmen like these based on economic need, where they live, their parents’ education level and if their high school offered advanced placement classes.

STUDENT: I want to share a goal. Being able to confidently walk around campus knowing what I want to do, being able to just talk to a professor and ask them for something. I think that is super scary.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Brenda Ta, who was recruited as a freshman, became a mentor as a sophomore.

BRENDA TA, Student, University of Texas at Austin: You just sometimes feel like you are not adequate. And I think it’s really important to tell you that you are adequate. You do have all the skills that everyone else does. You just have to believe in yourself.

STUDENT: You all know that you all have once-a-month meetings. Right?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Students in the program are offered $1,000 scholarships at the beginning of each semester.

STUDENT: During the first few months, I, like, stayed in my room a lot.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If they complete weekly requirements, like this reflection activity. The idea is to create a support system of students and mentors who share similar backgrounds.

STUDENT: Everybody is going to be seated with their eyes closed. The question is, tap somebody’s shoulder who has made you feel important. No peeking.

STUDENT: The next question is, tap somebody who has given you good advice. Tap somebody’s shoulder who has made you feel loved.

STUDENT: It made me smile. I was, like, smiling the entire time. It was, like, just super sweet.

STUDENT: I really enjoyed that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Students work through shared challenges like how to organize study time and how to survive the shock of their first college exam.

STUDENT: It was a real wakeup call when I bombed a test. I was like, I studied. I know this material.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But belonging or lack of belonging is something that almost every college student feels at some point, don’t they?

DAVID LAUDE: Well, it gets back to trusting that college is going to work out. You’re a first-generation student coming from a single-parent family, and you fail that first test, it’s very different than when you come from an affluent family. An affluent kid fails the first test, calls home, the father says, don’t worry about it, that happened to me when I was in college.

The student coming from an under-resourced background calls home and the mom says, see, I told you so.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Troubles at home can also weigh heavily on first-generation students.

Moises Correa’s father suffered an injury and can no longer work.

MOISES CORREA: Sometimes, I feel like I’m not really helping my family. And here I am like living a luxury, like, eating food here as much as I want, and having my own place to live and stuff.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Recently, Correa sent $400 of his scholarship money to pay his parents’ electric bill.

STUDENT: My mom called me and she asked if I could send her some money to help pay for the bill. And I was eager to say yes. And so I was able to do that for them.

BRENDA TA: Second Thursday every month.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Brenda Ta feels enormous pressure to succeed in order to help with the family’s finances.

BRENDA TA: I don’t see a problem with helping my parents, because they gave me everything when I was a kid. It’s just a lot of pressure, because sometimes I feel like other students are just like, oh, it’s — you know, I’m just here for college. I’m going to have fun.

And I’m like, yes, of course I want to have fun too, but, you know, it’s really hard sometimes whenever, like, no, you have to succeed, you can’t screw up, because, if you screw up, then you’re screwing up mom and dad, too. And you can’t do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And then there is the pressure some students feel about choosing a major they may not like, but will lead them to a secure future.

Sam Olayiwola didn’t start out a dance major.

SAM OLAYIWOLA: I came here as a computer science major for financial stability, but also to please my parents.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Helping students like Sam find a major that is the right fit is one of the ways the program hopes to keep students on track to graduate. It’s all part of a goal to connect these students to the university culture.

Students must engage in workshops, internships and public service. If they meet program requirements, they can earn $20,000 over four years.

DAVID LAUDE: It attaches strings to that money and says, in exchange, you will demonstrate that you are becoming what you want to be in college. You are becoming a leader, you are becoming a professional. You are being successful in what you do.

So we meter the money out conditionally in response to their demonstrating that month to month to month.

STUDENT: So, my accomplishment was making, like, university honors thing for your GPA.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In a promising sign, 92 percent of the Leadership Network’s first students will return this fall.

But supporters believe there are twice as many incoming students who could benefit from the program. Expanding to reach all of them may depend on just how these students progress.

In Austin, Texas, I’m Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.