September 16, 2014
As children across the country headed back to school this fall, the United States reached a milestone of sorts: nearly half the children enrolled in public schools now come from low-income families. As the public school population in the U.S. grows poorer, the need to improve college access and success for low-income students grows ever more acute. Indeed, politicians, business leaders, and policy makers are beginning to recognize what those in the philanthropic community have known for decades: a college education is the most reliable way of moving people out of poverty — permanently.
At Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, we know it's not always so easy to get low-income students on the path to higher education. To address that reality, we operate a program for low-income students called SEO Scholars that spends four years preparing program participants for college and another four years providing counseling and mentoring to make sure they graduate.
We're careful to say that SEO Scholars is not the answer for every student. We work with a specific population — students from low-income families (the average family income is less than $30,000 a year) in New York and San Francisco who are motivated to better their lives. In most cases, their regular teachers think they'll do just fine without additional help. The data tell a different story. Without additional help, many low-income students, no matter how motivated they are, graduate from high school without the academic preparation they need to succeed in a rigorous four-year college. Without additional support, low-income students who routinely get As and Bs in high school tend not to perform as well on the SAT or ACT. And in the college selection process, they "undermatch" — enrolling in a community college, a for-profit school, or a local college where dropout rates often are unacceptably high, instead of aiming for admission to a more competitive school with higher graduation rates and deeper financial aid resources.