Even in the midst
of our nation’s economic uncertainty and growing rates of unemployment, most
Americans have a dogged optimism of the future. According to a recent Pew
report, 62 percent think their economic situation is going to improve next
especially true for young people from low-income backgrounds who want to move
beyond the financial constraints within which they have lived to experience
economic freedom and rewards. But the transition from hope to reality for
social mobility among poor young adults remains daunting.
One pathway, in
particular, that can make a difference between a lifetime of poverty and a secure
economic future is higher education.
college degree or other advanced credential has proven to be a critical factor
in producing both individual and societal benefits. It is often education that
breaks generational cycles of poverty. Yet it is troubling to know that 1 in 10
impoverished young adults who have a postsecondary degree still fail to
immediately get out of poverty. This is an alarming trend because these
students already face greater academic and financial risks than their more
well-off peers when attempting to complete college.
Who are these low-income
young adults? According to our recent report at the Institute for Higher
Education Policy (IHEP), A Portrait of Low-Income Young Adults in Education, there are 35.2
million low-income young adults in the United States who are between the ages
of 18 and 26, and whose parents’ income or their own (if financially
independent) is up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
people are also more likely to be Native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanic (59
percent, 57 percent, and 47 percent, respectively) compared to their White and
Asian peers (47 percent and 40 percent, respectively).
47 percent of low-income young adults were currently or previously enrolled in
higher education in 2008.
low-income young adults, pursuing a college degree involves taking bold steps
toward bridging education, careers, and employment. And from a national
perspective, higher education success among poor young people puts us closer to
achieving our national college completion goals or enjoying the anticipated
economic boost that a more educated workforce will generate.
promise that comes with a college degree, how is it that some of our low-income
young adults who complete a higher education nonetheless struggle afterwards?
I would point to
Clearly, not all degrees are created equal, nor the types of institutions
where these credentials have been conferred. Students’ programs of study and
their majors matter, too, as does post-college choices, such as the type
of industry and/or occupation pursued, the fit of the degree and
For example, we’ve
spent the last few years studying the “Bologna Process”—Europe’s process for
standardizing and establishing accountability criteria for their higher
education systems. This method’s goal is to make student learning outcomes
transparent to gain a true understanding of the degree’s actual value.
Unfortunately, only a handful of U.S. higher education systems have begun work to
examine the impact of elements from the Bologna Process on American students
- Labor Market
Issues and Concerns: Another explanation some have offered is that, if
there is not sufficient demand in a local labor market for young adults
with a college degree, then the economic benefits will not be immediately
realized. Or perhaps low-income young adults’ earnings may reveal their
first involvement with the labor market rather than reflecting their true
potential or the impact of their education. One answer could be a lack of
- Economic Recession: The
economic recession has exacerbated the financial challenges many
low-income families already face. While a college degree continues to be a
strong long-term investment, many Americans currently find themselves
either unemployed or underemployed. The national unemployment rate
currently stands at 9.5 percent (14.6 million Americans), which is actually
lower than the rate in areas like Nevada and Michigan. Because future
economic conditions are not fully predictable, it’s hard to ascertain the
length and full impact that this recession will have on the employment
prospects of degree holders. Nevertheless, the Bureau of of Labor
Statistics occupational projects confirm that the jobs of the future will
require at least some postsecondary education
This is not an
exhaustive list, but it's clear that several factors have hindered the economic
opportunities that usually come with a post-secondary degree.
obstacles, ensuring that students graduate from our colleges and universities
with a sound college degree or credential remains imperative, not only because
it can enhance the labor market and social fabric of society, but because for
many individuals it can be a pathway out of poverty.
With President Obama calling for increased college
completion rates as a national priority and an economic necessity, our future
prosperity seems to rest on the shoulders of low-income young adults. This
requires support from both policymakers and the higher education community to
focus on innovative and systemic efforts to ensure greater postsecondary
educational access and success among low-income young adults.
Pursuing new approaches during a recession will be
difficult. But to foster change, we must
prioritize our government and institutional resources to address the expected
shortage in the share of the college educated populace as well as alleviate the
financial distress low-income young people are facing.
Although there is
growing income inequality and slower economic growth occurring in the U.S right
now, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to help those who have made good
educational investments reap the rewards they expect and deserve.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the
Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing
access and success in postsecondary education around the world.