Why poor kids don’t stay in college
By Jeff Guo
More people than ever are attending college.
But for millions of poor Americans, getting
into college isn’t the hard part.
BALTIMORE — It is a Tuesday in October and Terrell Kellam is running late. He usually wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the first of two buses that will take him from southwest Baltimore to Morgan State University, just north of the city. With a good connection, making it to his college classes might take an hour and a half.
But his bus pass has been acting up recently. He spends the morning looking for spare change. He’s going to miss his first class. And, because he forgot to pack food from home, he doesn’t have anything to eat for the rest of the day. He goes hungry pretty often.
Today, more people than ever are going to college, yet the nation’s overall college graduation rate has remained low. Only 59 percent of students who began as freshmen at a four-year college in the fall of 2006 received their diplomas within six years. Meanwhile, the high school completion rate reached a historic high: In 2012, four out of five students graduated high school within four years.
College students who come from low-income backgrounds, such as Kellam, 19, see the least chance of college success. They are less likely to begin college, less likely to finish.
Even after controlling for ability, the gap in college graduation rates persists. Low-income students who scored between 1200 and 1600 on their SATs were half as likely to finish college than their counterparts in the top 25 percent of the income distribution, according to one analysis of data from 2000. Economic distress can dim a student’s chances by forcing her to take on part-time jobs or reduce her credit load to help out at home.
In short, the afflictions of poverty don’t just disappear after a student gets into college.
Kellam’s section of freshman English begins at 8 a.m. every weekday. Recently, the class read “A Nation of Slaves,” an essay in which environmental activist Derrick Jensen denounces the numbing rituals of modern education.
“It’s basically about the school system and how they train people to think a certain way,” Kellam says.
The essay is a provocative pick for the students at this historically black school, where the vast majority of students had to struggle for the opportunity just to attend college. In 2013, 89 percent of undergraduates at Morgan State received federal Pell grants, meaning they are in the highest category of need. For many, the socioeconomic barriers become insurmountable. Only a fraction claim their diploma: The six-year graduation rate is 31 percent. Nationally, the black graduation rate is 40 percent; the white graduation rate is 62.5 percent.
100 students start college. Who graduates?
Today, Kellam does not get to campus until 11, missing his chance to discuss the essay with his instructor. He gets the author’s point, he says, but why should we assume that students are sheep? “The slavehood of any student can be lifted if they choose to,” he says.
Choice and self-determination: These are dearly held notions for Kellam, whose life at times can seem like a series of contingency plans.
There was a moment in his childhood, he recalls, when his parents lived together and the bills were being paid on time. But bad luck and a bad economy shook it all apart. One Thanksgiving, he says, his mother suffered eight strokes. A couple of months later his dad, a roofer, was badly injured in an accident.
His family spent some time in a shelter, and at the homes of various friends and cousins. Kellam currently lives with a woman he calls Aunt Dorothy, a fiercely protective family friend who has sheltered him since he was in grade school, around the time Kellam’s mother had to spend a stint in assisted living.
A theater major, Kellam once dreamed of starting his freshman year someplace out of state. Someplace cozy and creative. A program in South Carolina had accepted him, but his financial aid fell through at the last minute. His high school guidance counselor made some calls at the end of the summer, and he enrolled at Morgan State, a four-year public college with about 6,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. More than 90 percent of students receive some form of financial aid, about $6,500 on average.
Living with his aunt and commuting to school is one of Kellam’s cheapest options for college. Tuition and fees at Morgan State run about $7,400 a year. But he’s still not sure that his patchwork of grants and loans can cover it all.
Right now, he does not have enough money for all of his textbooks, let alone a computer. He doesn’t have cellphone either, which means that during his long bus rides home at midnight, nobody can contact him to make sure he’s safe.
In September, he requested to be put on a deferred-payment plan while he figures out how to come up with the tuition money.
“Truthfully, after this semester, I’m not even sure I’ll be attending this school,” he says.
In January, the White House released a report on increasing college success for low-income students. It recommended efforts to help low-income students prepare academically for college, and called more guidance so they could find the right school that would offer them enough aid and attention.
The report recognized, too, that college readiness is only half the story. “Low-income students face barriers to college success at every stage of the education pipeline, from elementary school through post-secondary education, sometimes in spite of their academic achievements,” it said.
In a study of people born in the early 1980s, University of Michigan researchers found vast disparities in college enrollment and graduation rates between students of different income levels. Of the richest 25 percent of students, 80 percent enrolled in college by age 19, and of those, 68 percent graduated by age 25.
But of students in the bottom quarter of the income distribution, only 29 percent enrolled in college by age 19. Of those, only 32 percent graduated by age 25 with a bachelor’s degree.
At Morgan State, the battle against attrition starts with financial aid. The college can commit to meeting students only at 80 percent of expected need, so it already is at a handicap. “We know we can’t help every student reach 100 percent,” says Linda Trusty, the school’s associate director for financial aid. “Our goal is to help our students reach 80 percent.”
That is to say, even after every grant, loan and scholarship available, most students at Morgan still come up 20 percent short. Some, if their parents have decent credit, take out additional private loans. Others, such as Kellam, try to save money by commuting and not buying a meal plan.
Each semester, about 1,200 to 2,000 of the 7,500 students do not pay on time, says Tiffany Mfume, who oversees the college’s student retention efforts. The financial aid office works with students to set up a payment plan or find other sources of funding. Of those, a couple of hundred each semester still fall short. These students embark on what is called a “stop-out” period, pausing their studies until they can raise enough money to return.
A couple of years ago, Mfume dug into the data and was astonished to find that many of the stopped-out students were painfully close to meeting their financial obligations. Just this semester, according to associate provost Kara Turner, 293 students have not been financially cleared to stay in class. About 10 percent of those students owe less than $1,000.
“We see students leaving our university for what I would say, or what you might say, is as little as $500,” Mfume says. She adds, “But if I have zero, whether you’re telling me I owe $500 or $5,000, it’s the same.”
In 2011, Morgan State started a $5 million fundraising campaign to close the gap for these students. The college’s president, David Wilson, pledged $100,000 of his own money toward the effort.
While she was looking at the data, Mfume noticed a number of students in good academic standing who dropped out just short of graduating. They didn’t transfer to a different school; they just stopped coming. The pattern for many, she says, is that life gets in the way. Students take on jobs to pay for school or to support their families, and sometimes they drop out to work full-time.
Four years ago, Mfume started reaching out to these students who only needed a year’s worth of credits or less to graduate. The president gave her $50,000 to offer these candidates small stipends to encourage them to come back. The Reclamation Initiative has reached out to 133 former students, and 56 have agreed to return. The state of Maryland has since started to offer similar grants for other colleges to bring back near-completers.
“It really shows again,” Mfume says, “how close students can get to the finish line and still not make it unless we’re looking out for them and inviting them back and pushing them.”
Kellam has had several parental figures send him in the right direction. One reason for his success is that he welcomes people into his life.
There is Aunt Dorothy Johnson, of course, who took him in and raised him. “As long as I have breath in my body, I’m going to push him further and help him achieve his goals,” she says. “I love him so much.”
There is Patrice Hutton, who met Kellam when he was a seventh-grader and he signed up for a creative writing program her nonprofit was starting at his school. Hutton encouraged Kellam to apply to the summer writers’ workshops at the University of Iowa and Kenyon College. When he got in, she helped him find scholarship money to pay for those overnight programs.
These days, she is helping with the cost of his bus passes and textbooks. Because of Kellam, Hutton says that her nonprofit, which recently was renamed Writers at Your Schools, is developing a scholarship fund to assist more students with the various costs of college.
Then there is his high school guidance counselor Susanne GrayRice, who jolted him through his college applications when he was feeling paralyzed in his senior year. GrayRice calls him her “special child.”
“His aunt trusted me to be able to shake him when he needed to be shook,” she says. “Like, let me shut the door, take my counselor hat of, and talk to you like someone who loves you.”
Kellam’s second stop on Tuesday is GrayRice’s office, about two miles from the Morgan State campus. He walks the distance briskly. In high school he played varsity soccer and ran cross country. Sometimes he sees his father in this neighborhood.
When he arrives at his old high school, he drops by to see GrayRice for a brief reunion, and to tell her about his financial aid problems.
“I need to know how much money you have left,” she says.
“The money they gave me is like 11-something, and then the rest of my bill is probably like 5-something,” Kellam says.
That doesn’t add up, GrayRice says. “I need to understand what money is left.” She tells him to send over his financial aid information — all of it.
“I’m going to fight you,” she says. “You can’t sit out. You can’t afford to not go to school.”
He promises to e-mail her by Friday.
It takes Kellam a little more than half an hour to walk back to his afternoon class. Orientation is a semester-long introduction to college that meets twice a week for 50 minutes. Kellam’s section is headed by Prof. Eric Conway, the chairman of the Fine and Performing Arts Department.
Today, the topic is credits. Conway is asking the students if they know how many they need to graduate. This course, which is mandatory for freshmen, has been taught for decades at Morgan State. It helps put everyone on equal footing, especially those whose parents never went to college.
Kellam thinks his best shot at staying in college is to show that he is a good student and an asset to the community. In the past couple of months, he has taken every opportunity to help Morgan’s theater department, choreographing shows and making costumes.
After orientation, Kellam heads to one of the dance practice rooms for rehearsal. He and junior Shaqunia Brown have been put in charge of the performing arts department’s convocation this year. They have organized a program honoring Maya Angelou.
A couple of days ago, Hutton helped Kellam get a donated laptop, which he is now using to make a mashup of students reciting Angelou’s poetry over Kanye West’s song “Heartless.” He has choreographed a dance to go with it.
Slouched backward in his seat, he tweaks the levels as he waits for his performers to warm up.
“This is why I don’t go to parties anymore,” groans one girl as she hugs her knees. “Because I’m forced to twerk.”
“Where the f— is Cecily?” says Brown, in her best diva shriek, and that becomes the catchphrase of the afternoon.
In just a few weeks, Brown has come to see Kellam as a little brother. Both have endured family hardship growing up. She believes that their struggles taught them each the strength needed to succeed in theater.
“When you don’t have any support system, you learn to become your own motivation,” she says. Her voice starts to crack as she watches Kellam demonstrate a turn. She blinks away some dampness. “And he’s definitely motivated.”
Brown stands up.
“Where the f— is Cecily?” she repeats.
Kellam, who is now counting off beats for the choreography, cracks a small smile. Brown is the bad cop. He is the good cop. These dancers and theater geeks are his friends. This is how he fits in. At college.