For poor, leap to college often ends in a hard fall
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GALVESTON, Texas -- Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor -- black boots, chains and cargo pants -- but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself for a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
"I don't want to work at Wal-Mart" as her mother did, she wrote to a school counselor.
Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O'Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to "get off the island" -- escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother's boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca's bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father's death. They stuck together so much that a tutor dubbed them the "triplets."
Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls' class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson's alma mater.
"It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another," Melissa said. "It felt like, 'Here we go!'"
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. None has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.
Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.
The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger -- the growing role of education in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: Education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.
"Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer -- the place where upward mobility gets started," said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. "But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It's very disheartening."
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor's degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.
Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the financial and emotional support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.
In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated -- and only the educated prosper -- the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.
"It's becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder," said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University . "What we're talking about is a threat to the American dream."
Less than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of incomes even enroll in a four-year school. And among that group, less than half graduate.
Income has always shaped academic success, but its importance is growing. Mr. Reardon examined a dozen reading and math tests dating back 25 years and found that the gap in scores of high- and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, even as the difference between blacks and whites has narrowed.
While race once predicted scores more than class, the opposite now holds. By eighth grade, white students surpass blacks by an average of three grade levels, while upper-income students are four grades ahead of low-income counterparts.
"The racial gaps are quite big, but the income gaps are bigger," Mr. Reardon said.
One explanation is simply that the rich have gotten richer. A generation ago, families at the 90th percentile had five times the income of those at the 10th percentile. Now they have 10 times as much.
But as shop class gave way to computer labs, schools may have also changed in ways that make parental income and education more important. SAT coaches were once rare, even for families that could afford them. Now they are part of a vast college preparation industry.
Certainly as the payoff to education has grown -- college graduates have greatly widened their earnings lead -- affluent families have invested more in it. They have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons and summer camps, according to Duncan and Richard Murnane of Harvard.
In addition, upper-income parents, especially fathers, have increased their child-rearing time, while the presence of fathers in low-income homes has declined.
Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica through college.
"Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them," Ms. Lareau said. "Working-class and poor students don't experience that. It makes them more vulnerable."
Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution has found that low-income students finish college less often than better-off peers even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26 percent of eighth-graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor's degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.
"These are students who have already overcome significant obstacles to score above average on this test," Mr. Chingos said. "To see how few earn college degrees is really disturbing."
The triplets had a dinner while back that offered the comfort of friends who demand no explanations. Melissa suggested that they all enroll at Texas State. But Bianca does not know what to study, and Angelica said that she had gone too far to surrender all hopes of an Emory degree.
"I could have done some things better, and Emory could have done some things better," she said. "But I don't blame either one of us. Everyone knows life is unfair -- being low-income puts you at a disadvantage. I just didn't understand the extent of the obstacles I was going to have to overcome."
First Published December 23, 2012 12:00 am