War On Poverty College Programs Still Serving ‘Lucky Few’

What constitutes success after graduating from high school? Today, in Hampton High School with its 450 students, located in the beautiful but economically disadvantaged Cherokee National Forest in northeastern Tennessee, guidance counselor JoAnna Orr has a practical perspective on success: she will accept whatever comes her way. After conducting a study of her attendance zone, Ms. Orr discovered that, despite the efforts made over the past 50 years to increase the number of low-income students entering higher education, achieving a college education still remains a difficult goal for many. The study showed that fewer than 5 percent of adults held a bachelors degree. Out of the 80 seniors who graduated from Hampton last spring, fewer than 10 had parents who had attended college themselves.

"We have managed to increase the number of students attending college from single digits to about 25 percent who at least try," Ms. Orr said. However, it is still challenging for families with limited resources or experience in postsecondary education to help their children plan for and succeed after high school. "Career opportunities are changing rapidly and the skills required for those jobs are changing as well. Do you need a bachelors degree to become a plumber? How would you know, how would you research that?"

With more middle-class jobs now requiring postsecondary training, school districts are facing increased scrutiny and accountability for their students college enrollment and success. However, the federal programs originally established to bridge the gap between high school and college, namely Upward Bound and Talent Search, were not designed to serve all students and have not received adequate resources to meet the growing demand, especially in rural communities like the ones surrounding Johnson City. Anthony P. Carnevale, the director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, believes that the efforts to get more students from poor or minority families into college are faltering as more colleges become selective and the gaps persist between students at selective institutions and those with open enrollment. "The underlying socioeconomic structure of society will always prevail unless you are willing to provide special treatment and additional resources to promote upward mobility," Mr. Carnevale said, noting that evidence shows that the programs most effective in helping disadvantaged students access and complete college are often labor-intensive and costly for those running them.

In 1964 and 1965, when Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act and the Higher Education Act respectively to establish modern student loan and college bridge programs, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared, "It is a truth that education is no longer a luxury. Education in this day and age is a necessity." While it made for catchy headlines, at the time the high school diploma was seen as the key to middle-class jobs, and it has taken more time to close the gaps in college completion. In 1960, 80 percent of adults living in poverty, as well as 80 percent of all black Americans and 57 percent of all white Americans, had not completed high school. Policymakers focused on ensuring that all Americans attained this basic diploma through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. In contrast, only 8 percent of white students and 3 percent of black students had completed college by 1960. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, both high school graduation and college completion rates have significantly increased: 80 percent of adults in poverty have a high school diploma, including equivalency diplomas, and by 2013, 28.5 percent of Americans aged 25 and older had earned a bachelors degree. However, the gap in postsecondary enrollment between high school graduates from high-income families and those from low-income families has barely narrowed, standing at 29.7 percentage points in 1975 versus 29.9 percentage points in 2010, according to census figures. Ellyn R. Artis, the higher education and program director at the Education Delivery Institute, a nonprofit focused on the K-12-to-college link, says that there are significant racial disparities in college attainment: 39 percent of white students earn a four-year degree, compared to 20 percent of black students and 13 percent of Hispanic students. Nearly 80 percent of students in the highest income bracket earn a four-year college degree, compared to only 11 percent of those in the lowest income bracket.

Therefore, there is a need to build a "bridge" to help low-income students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds access and succeed in college.

Programs that aim to increase college access for students from low-income families and those who are the first in their family to pursue a postsecondary education have evolved over the years. One such program is Upward Bound, which was established in 1964 under the Economic Opportunity Act. Upward Bound provides grants to colleges, universities, and community groups to support high school students in their journey towards college. The program offers a range of services, including tutoring, cultural enrichment activities, guidance in the college application process, and additional instruction in various subjects. To be eligible for Upward Bound, students must be between the ages of 13 and 19, come from low-income families, and potentially be the first in their family to attend college. The program has a budget of approximately $250 million in grants, benefiting close to 60,000 students.

Another program, Talent Search, was created as part of the Higher Education Act in 1965. Talent Search focuses on identifying students in middle school and ensuring they are on track for higher education. The program encourages partnerships among high schools, higher education institutions, and community groups to support students academically and provide them with resources such as tutoring, career guidance, and college campus visits. To be eligible for Talent Search, students must be between the ages of 11 and 27, with two-thirds of the participants being from low-income backgrounds and potentially first-generation college students. The program has a budget of around $128.1 million in grants, benefiting nearly 300,000 students.

The Pell Grant, which has evolved from the Education Opportunity Grant, is another significant program established under the Higher Education Act of 1965. This program provides needs-based grants to low-income students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees at thousands of colleges and universities. The grants are renewable for up to 12 semesters, providing long-term financial support for students. Eligibility for the Pell Grant is determined based on various factors such as student and family income, assets, and the cost of attending college. The maximum grant amount for the 2014-2015 academic year is $5,730.

Overall, these college-access programs play a crucial role in supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their pursuit of higher education. They provide essential resources and guidance to ensure that students have equal opportunities to succeed in college and beyond.

Expanding the Reach

"They were created to address the unfairness faced by students who had the academic capabilities to attend college but lacked financial resources and access to information," Ms. Constantine explained. "When these programs were initiated, not everyone was expected to go to college, so why would they focus on students who were already struggling?" In a way, Upward Bound and Talent Search were designed specifically for a school like Dobyns-Bennett High School, located less than an hour north of Hampton High in Kingsport. This school, with its 2,100 students, is consistently ranked as one of the top high schools in the country by Newsweek. It offers 22 Advanced Placement classes and the majority of its students graduate with nine hours of college credit. Seventy percent of graduates go on to pursue higher education.

"You have to advocate for yourself and make it clear to the guidance counselors that you aspire to achieve more in life." – Jacquelyn Coleman, senior, Tennessee High School, Bristol, Tenn.

Even at Dobyns-Bennett, the high school graduation rate for low-income students is 81 percent, which is over 10 percentage points lower than their wealthier peers. The overall college completion rate among students varies between 40 to 60 percent, depending on the graduating class. "I believe that a strong academic foundation is crucial, and the earlier and better the quality of education, the better prepared the student will be for college," said Principal Chris Hampton. However, he acknowledged, "There is a lack of mentoring and advising that is not present in public high schools, including our own. We struggle to provide social equity. While we do have some colleges that offer a FAFSA night, it doesnt matter how many times we announce it over the loudspeaker if the student is not aware that they need to attend."

Hunter Malone, a senior at Tennessee High School in Bristol, also mentioned that his school has "college nights" and promotes the states initiative of providing two years of free community college tuition. However, he believes that it is easy for seniors to immerse themselves in sports and other extracurricular activities that have immediate deadlines and demands, leaving little time for planning beyond graduation. "You have to be proactive and let the guidance counselors know that you have ambitions beyond high school," added Jacquelyn Coleman, another senior at Tennessee High.

Both students are participants in Upward Bound, and Mr. Hampton, who is an Upward Bound alumnus himself, described the program as "the most influential experience of my life because it allowed me to start anew within a supportive peer group where everyone started on a level playing field."

However, critics argue that Upward Bound- costing more than $4,000 per student on average- has not been proven to be more cost-effective than less intensive college access programs. This may be due in part to the programs rigorous application process, which means that it is likely benefiting students who were already highly motivated to attend college. A long-term evaluation of the program by Mathematica found limited benefits, although a former federal program manager has criticized this study, claiming that certain sites were given too much weight. In any case, Upward Bounds impact is limited to those who are selected, and many districts in and around Johnson City have waiting lists for the program. "At the core, yes, these programs do help a fortunate few young individuals, but the participants are the exceptions that prove the rule," Mr. Carnevale commented.

Economic Mobility

According to the Pew Economic Mobility Projects findings in 2013, adults who started out in the lowest 20 percent of income in America were more than five times more likely to move up to a higher income bracket- and 2.5 times more likely to join the middle class- if they earned a college degree compared to those who did not finish college. "We understand that the economy plays a key role in facilitating upward mobility, but one obstacle that hinders the potential upward mobility offered by the economy is the requirement for certifications in certain jobs," said Mr. Carnevale. "The education requirement has become an additional barrier."

"Having a strong academic foundation is important, but it is also crucial to have the social skills to succeed in college and communicate with others." —Cody Palmer, sophomore, Sullivan Central High School, Blountville, Tenn.–Shawn Poynter for Education Week

Maryland and Hawaii now include college-going rates as an additional indicator of school success for federal and state accountability purposes. Similarly, Nevada holds schools responsible for whether their students need to take remedial classes when they enter higher education. Tennessee may not have that level of accountability, but its Tennessee Promise initiative provides high school graduates starting from the class of 2015 with a college-application mentor during their senior year and two years of free community college or technical school. "A decade ago, we did not have the necessary data or infrastructure to conduct research on the best practices for college bridge programs, but now we do. I believe we are on the cusp of solving this problem with the right determination and resources," said Ms. Constantine. "I think there will be an increase in accountability for high schools, as there is more federal and state influence in that area. However, I also think that postsecondary institutions themselves will need to become more accountable in order to improve persistence."

On the other hand, Mr. Carnevale argues that the pressure on colleges to ensure a high percentage of students graduate and secure well-paying jobs is having negative consequences for low-income and minority students. "If you do not have higher graduation rates, faster completion, and better employment outcomes, the college will suffer. And the only way to achieve these results on a limited budget is by recruiting better-off and white students."

Education Divide

Between 1995 and 2009, over 80% of new white college freshmen enrolled in one of the top 468 selective four-year universities, compared to only 9% of black and 13% of Hispanic freshmen. In contrast, the increase in community colleges and other two-year programs has largely been driven by minority students. Approximately 70% of new black and Hispanic college students attended open-access two- or four-year colleges between 1995 and 2009, while there was no growth in white students at these institutions.

However, there is a downside: Carnevale and others have discovered that community colleges generally have fewer resources and higher dropout rates compared to more selective schools. In fact, high-achieving students who scored 1200 or above on the SAT and attended open-access two- or four-year colleges were only able to complete their degrees slightly more than half of the time, which was 28 percentage points less often than students who scored between 1000 and 1099 on the SAT but attended more selective schools. Carnevale also found that 170 colleges that had open enrollment policies in 1990 now have selective admissions. He used Georgetown University, which requires a minimum SAT score of 1300 for admission, as an example: "We could admit students with scores of 1100 and 80% of them would graduate. However, our graduation rate is 96%. There is a socially constructed reality here… the competition for prestige that brings in money, and this ensures that we will not achieve diversity in terms of class or race." Colleges with higher graduation rates and more selective admissions are often seen as academically rigorous and receive better rankings from students, parents, and guidance counselors when it comes to choosing colleges. Graduation rates may become an even stronger factor as the U.S. Department of Education pushes for increased accountability in higher education, potentially leading colleges to tighten their admissions processes, according to Mr. Carnevale.

Different Levels of Success

Starla C. Bright, a junior at Dobyns-Bennett, understands this dynamic but is not concerned about it. "I know that in order to achieve something significant, I have to attend college," she said. "I really, really want to go to Stanford University, but honestly, I will go wherever my journey takes me. The name on the degree does not matter as long as I earned it."

Janet Bright, a custodian at the school and the mother of Starla, encouraged her daughter to join Upward Bound to help her achieve the success in college that she herself had not attained.

At Hampton High School, Ms. Orr, the guidance counselor, explained her personal definition of success. She holds herself responsible every time she dines at a local diner. Sometimes, she feels a sense of disappointment when she encounters a former student working there, as she had expected them to pursue a college education. However, there are also moments where she feels a sense of pride when she sees a student worker who had almost dropped out of high school and now has a stable job, despite having two children. "I consider myself a successful counselor if I can break the cycle of dependency and help a student become a productive member of society, contributing to taxes instead of relying on them," she stated. "The perception of success is influenced by an individuals background and circumstances."


  • daisymay

    Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.



Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.