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Education pipeline favors students from affluent families, not low-income students

At a time when ensuring that all students receive a quality education is more important than ever, students from low-income families are increasingly less likely to experience academic success and educational opportunities than their affluent peers. In fact, students from affluent families are 10 times [1] more likely to graduate from high school and go on to earn a college degree by age 24 compared to students from low-income families.

This skewed outcome alone is startling, but what it projects for North Carolina’s future is even more troubling. With an increasing number of jobs in the state, and nationally, expected to require some level of postsecondary education, we need more of our students from low-income families – who now represent a majority of students in our public schools – graduating from high school and going on to earn a postsecondary credential.

The United States is one of the few advanced nations where more educational resources tend to flow to schools serving better-off children than schools serving poor students, a recent New York Times article [2] highlights. In North Carolina, the concentration of low-income students is not confined to particular areas in the state. Nearly three out of every four [3] public schools serving grades Pre-K through 8 educated a majority of students from low-income families during the 2011-12 school year, and the majority of students in more than half of the state’s public high schools were from low-income families.  And yet, the New York Times article highlights that North Carolina is among a select group of states in which high-poverty schools receive significantly fewer education dollars compared to schools with lower levels of poverty.

The implications of an education pipeline that affords fewer educational resources and opportunities to poor students extend beyond K-12 education and into higher education. Many colleges and universities have adopted financial aid practices that are designed to compete for students from affluent families, with a lesser focus on helping make college more affordable for low-income students, research [4] by the New America Foundation (NAF) finds. As states, including North Carolina, have cut funding for higher education and students and families must shoulder more and more of increasing college costs, the NAF report highlights that colleges are directing their financial aid dollars toward students from families that can afford to pay for their college education and who would likely still attend college in the absence of the financial aid provided by institutions.

Efforts must be made by policymakers and educational leaders – at the K-12 and postsecondary education levels – to ensure that equitable and quality educational opportunities exist for all students regardless of economic background. At the K-12 education level, adequate funding and targeting education dollars [5] to where they are needed most helps boost student outcomes. Colleges can play a meaningful role, in part, by re-orienting their financial aid policies so that making college more affordable for low-income students is a priority. Success or failure in meeting this challenge will directly impact the economic prospects for North Carolina and the nation overall. The stakes are high.