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Low-Income Students and College
This year, the White House made college for low-income students a priority. According to the story on NPR (National Public Radio),
“No more than half of low-income high school graduates apply to college, so the President has asked the first lady to spearhead a national effort to encourage colleges — the more selective ones, in particular — to admit and graduate more students who are poor.” –NPR, January 16, 2014.
So what’s going to happen to make this happen? Government and nonprofit organizations will make money available. Colleges and universities will intensify their efforts at recruitment from poor neighborhoods. Volunteers will come forward to help the targeted group fill out admission forms and financial aid applications.
As my Great-Aunt Jenny used to say, they may as well save their breath to cool their porridge.
The achievement gap between the children of the middle class and the children of the poor opens at birth.
The most important thing that parents can do for their children, besides keep them warm, clean, and fed, is to talk to them, read to them, and show them how language works. Most low-income children do not receive adequate exposure to language during their preschool years. Those who do are able to compete academically with children from more affluent homes.
Sandra Sotomayer was born into poverty, but she had a mother who stressed the importance of education.
Gisel Ruiz, chief operating officer for Walmart USA, is the daughter of immigrant migrant workers who taught her how to learn.
Not all low-income children have parents who understand what is needed to lay a foundation for school success during the preschool years.
US public education is designed for children who receive thousands of hours of preschool education from birth to the age of five or six. About half the children who begin school every year have had that kind of preschool experience. The other half face frustration and failure in a system that does not acknowledge their different educational needs.
Studies suggest that the learning gap between poor and middle class children is already evident at 18 months. The American Federation of Teachers reports that by age three, low-income children have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. The difference is not family income, but the quality of child/adult interaction during the preschool years.
Language is the vehicle of education. Children from poor neighborhoods begin school three times more likely to score at the bottom on assessments of reading, math, and general knowledge than those from middle class neighborhoods.
The gap continues to widen. Fourth-grade students from low-income homes score three years below their advantaged peers. Every year, millions of children fail to learn to read by the end of the third grade. They are not all dyslexic.
Millions of children drop out of school as soon as they reach their teens. Millions more stay in school until the twelfth grade, but graduate without the knowledge or skills necessary for success in college.
Government and institutions of higher learning should provide information and financial support that will enable qualified low-income students to attend college.
But if reformers are serious about sending greater numbers of low-income children to college, the place to start is in their preschool years and in the first four years of public education. Five-year-olds lacking in exposure to language require a different introduction to beginning reading than those who come to school already three years ahead of them.
Putting all five-year-olds in the same kindergarten classes in the name of “equality” may seem like a good thing, but it isn’t. It’s one of the things fueling the engine of generational poverty.
Until something is done to equip the children of the poor with language in their early years, higher education will remain out of reach for most of them.
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