The Role Geography and Income Play in Getting to and Through College

March 30, 2020

This is the second of a 4-part blog series focused on the interconnected elements that impact students who fall within the academic middle of their peers.

If over a lifetime Americans with college degrees earn 84% more than those with only high school diplomas, then getting to and through college is the greatest lever for promoting upward economic mobility. For high school students who fall within the academic middle of their peers, attaining a post-secondary degree can be a challenge as they are generally on the cusp of college eligibility but need the extra guidance and support to get there. Add geography and family income into the equation, the probability of low-income students earning that degree decrease even more.

According to nationwide statistics for the high school class of 2018, 55% of students attending low-income, high-minority schools enrolled in college the fall after high school graduation as compared to 71% of students who attended high-income, low-minority schools. How much people make often determine where they can afford to live, and where people live often dictates the variety of resources and opportunities their children are exposed to in order to climb the academic ladder.

Capital Partners for Education (CPE) mentors low-income students in the academic middle from the Washington, D.C. area to provide the skills and experiences they need to successfully complete college and excel in the workforce. Many of CPE’s students reside in Wards 7 and 8 of Washington, D.C., where data on financial outcomes is alarming.

As of January 2020, the average median household income in Ward 7 was $40,963 and $36,697 in Ward 8 compared to $90,695 in the city as a whole. This income gap presents barriers to students who may not live in more affluent areas of Washington, D.C. and overall, it contributes to the systemic issue of income inequality in the United States.

Navigating life as a student from a low-income area comes with its own set of challenges. CPE college student, Fred, grew up in Ward 7. He offers insight into the difference in opportunities he had access to compared to his peers. “I remember hearing about students who received the D.C. Achievers Scholarship Award,” said Fred. “We didn’t get that at my school but I feel it was something we needed.” Fred believes that getting himself into programs like CPE was vital for his success as he grew up in a community that didn’t provide access to resources such as mentorship or help with paying for student fees.

A contributing factor to Fred becoming an academic middle student was what he experienced outside of school. “If you grow up in a low-income area, your daily thoughts and troubles are different from those who don’t,” said Fred. “For me, my primary thoughts were centered around safety, wondering how I was going to get home, and having to decide if it was too late in the day to participate in extracurricular activities.” After talking to some of his peers from higher-income areas in D.C., Fred said they didn’t have the same worries. “To live in an area that allowed you to solely focus on your studies and moving forward shouldn’t be taken for granted when you compare that to students from low-income areas who often have to endure things that go on outside of school, ultimately hindering their success in school,” said Fred.

A 2019 Stanford study reports: “families residing in disadvantaged neighborhoods may have less access to high-quality preschools, fewer neighbors with high levels of education, social and political capital who can provide role models and support, more exposure to violence and crime (Patillo, 2013), fewer social services (e.g. physical and mental health care), and fewer opportunities for extracurricular activities. All of these factors may shape educational opportunities and cognitive development both in early childhood and during school.” (Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, 2019)

One of the outcomes from residing in low-income neighborhoods points to minimal post-secondary education attainment. As of January 2020, only 16% of Ward 7 residents and 17% of Ward 8 residents had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher. It’s a challenge to aspire to what you haven’t been exposed to without support from someone who has achieved those goals.

Fred is a first-generation college student and relied heavily on the mentorship he received from his CPE mentor, Aaron; FASFA workshops held by CPE; and going on college campus tours to get into college. “My mom wasn’t able to provide substantial help when I went through the college application process,” said Fred. “It’s still hard to this day particularly when having to fill out the FASFA form each year with her.” Although Fred admires his mother’s strength and resiliency, he wanted to create a different path and do something no one in his family had ever done before – attend college.

“I know I wouldn’t be in college if it wasn’t for CPE,” said Fred. “It’s the push you get to achieve more, because I was at the point where I just wanted to get out of high school and I wasn’t thinking past that. CPE and my mentor kept me focused on my future with a goal of getting to and through college.” Fred’s passion for creativity led him to major in theater and performance. He is in his junior year at Morehouse College and plans to pursue a career in stage production and costume design after receiving his bachelor’s degree next year.

Students from low-income areas face an ever-widening gap in accessing resources and being exposed to opportunities that help them complete college with the necessary skills to enter sustainable careers. This blog provided insight into the interconnected elements of geography and income that impact students who fall within the academic middle of their peers. The next blog in this series will focus on race and how it effects these students in their quest to achieve upward economic mobility.