October 6, 2015

My Testimony to Congress: How We Can Improve College Access and Completion For Low-Income Students

By: Laura W. Perna

One challenge facing many metropolitan areas is ensuring that workers have the education and training that is required for available jobs. Increasingly, available jobs require some education beyond high school.  But, as I discussed in my book Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, many metropolitan areas are experiencing a mismatch, as the share of new jobs that require some postsecondary education exceeds the share of the population that is educationally qualified for these jobs.

Many forces contribute to low educational attainment, particularly in the nation’s urban centers. On average, urban public schools are more likely to serve low-income students than rural or suburban schools, and urban children are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty than those in suburban locations.i] What’s more, in many cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest of the country, school poverty is concentrated by race, meaning that these urban public schools are effectively segregated: some serve almost exclusively middle- and upper-middle-income white students, and others serve poor students and students of color. For example, in both Chicago (Cook County) and Milwaukee, 75 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools compared with less than 10 percent of white students.[ii]

Not only are urban minority students more likely than their white peers to attend high-poverty schools, but these urban minority students are also less likely to enroll in higher education. On average, about half (51 percent) of 2013 graduates of low-income urban high schools with high concentrations of minority students enrolled in a two-year or four-year college in the fall immediately following graduation. By contrast, 73 percent of graduates of predominantly white, high-income suburban high schools entered college in the fall immediately after graduation.[iii]

In a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez and U.S. Secretary of State Arne Duncan point out that better outcomes for students in cities require more attention to post-high school educational skills.

Improving college access and success for low-income and first-generation students requires a multi-faceted, comprehensive approach, and commitment from multiple stakeholders, including the federal government. This comprehensive approach must help ensure that: students have the necessary financial resources to pay college costs; students are adequately academically prepared for college-level requirements; and students have the information and knowledge required to understand college-related requirements and processes, make appropriate college-related choices, and navigate the complicated pathways into, across, and through higher education institutions.

I offer five recommendations for the important federal role in college access and success programs.

1) Assist students with navigating pathways into and through college, with particular attention to financial aid processes. Although much “information” about college-going and financial aid processes is available via the Internet and other sources, simply making information available is insufficient. Low-income and first-generation students especially need guidance with the many steps that promote college entry, including the availability of and processes for obtaining financial aid. In too many high schools, school staff are not available to provide the assistance that students need to navigate the complex process of entering college and obtaining financial aid. College access and success programs are an important mechanism for helping to fill this void.

2) Target students with the greatest financial need. To create meaningful improvements in college access and completion for students from underrepresented groups, we must recognize and address the many ways that inequality is structured into the pathways into and through college. Students from low-income families have fewer financial resources to pay both the direct costs of college attendance and the many less-visible costs of college access and completion including costs of college admissions tests and college application fees.

3) Encourage programs to recognize the state, regional, and local context and characteristics of students served. To have a meaningful effect on students’ college-related outcomes, college access and success programs need to adapt the delivery of services to recognize the state, regional, and local context in which the programs are embedded.

4) Leverage federal spending to serve greater numbers of students.

Given fiscal constraints, the federal government should consider ways to leverage its investment to encourage greater support for college and success programming from other entities, as well as partnerships among the many existing college and success programs that are sponsored not only by the federal government but also by state governments, colleges and universities, philanthropic organizations, and other entities.  

5) Encourage research and evaluation to improve understanding of what works. The federal government should not only support the delivery of college access and success programs but also encourage research that improves understanding of best practices. More information is needed about best practices for promoting college-related outcomes for low-income and first-generation students along the college-going pipeline, from middle-school into post-graduate study, and for both traditional-age students and adults who aspire to attend and complete college. Such research will help ensure that finite resources are used to most effectively improve college-related outcomes for low-income and first-generation college students.

Laura W. Perna is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow and Professor, Chair of the Higher Education Division at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, and Chair-Elect of the Faculty Senate. The following article is adapted from testimony provided to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, Committee on Education and the Workforce, United States House of Representatives on April 30, 2015.


National Center for Education Statistics. <http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/96184all.pdf>.

[ii] Urban League. <http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/high-poverty-schools-undermine-education-children-color>.

[iii] Education by the Numbers. <http://educationbythenumbers.org/content/twenty-five-percent-low-income-urban-high-schools-beat-odds_2168/>.



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