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The College Dropout Boom
By DAVID LEONHARDT
Published: May 24, 2005
 CHILHOWIE, Va. — One of the biggest decisions Andy Blevins has ever made, and one of
the few he now regrets, never seemed like much of a decision at all. It just felt like the natural
thing to do.
 In the summer of 1995, he was moving boxes of soup cans, paper towels and dog food across
the floor of a supermarket warehouse, one of the biggest buildings here in southwest Virginia.
The heat was brutal. The job had sounded impossible when he arrived fresh off his first year of
college, looking to make some summer money, still a skinny teenager with sandy blond hair and
a narrow, freckled face.
 But hard work done well was something he understood, even if he was the first college boy in
his family. Soon he was making bonuses on top of his $6.75 an hour, more money than either of
his parents made. His girlfriend was around, and so were his hometown buddies. Andy acted
more outgoing with them, more relaxed. People in Chilhowie noticed that.
 It was just about the perfect summer. So the thought crossed his mind: maybe it did not have
to end. Maybe he would take a break from college and keep working. He had been getting C’s
and D’s, and college never felt like home, anyway.
 “I enjoyed working hard, getting the job done, getting a paycheck,” Mr. Blevins recalled. “I
just knew I didn’t want to quit.”
 So he quit college instead, and with that, Andy Blevins joined one of the largest and
fastestgrowing groups of young adults in America. He became a college dropout, though
nongraduate may be the more precise term.
 Many people like him plan to return to get their degrees, even if few actually do. Almost one
in three Americans in their mid-20’s now fall into this group, up from one in five in the late
1960’s, when the Census Bureau began keeping such data. Most come from poor and
 The phenomenon has been largely overlooked in the glare of positive news about the
country’s gains in education. Going to college has become the norm throughout most of the
United States, even in many places where college was once considered an exotic destination places like Chilhowie (pronounced chill-HOW-ee), an Appalachian hamlet with a simple brick
downtown. At elite universities, classrooms are filled with women, blacks, Jews and Latinos,
groups largely excluded two generations ago. The American system of higher learning seems to
have become a great equalizer.
 In fact, though, colleges have come to reinforce many of the advantages of birth. On
campuses that enroll poorer students, graduation rates are often low. And at institutions where
nearly everyone graduates – small colleges like Colgate, major state institutions like the
University of Colorado and elite private universities like Stanford – more students today come
from the top of the nation’s income ladder than they did two decades ago.
 Only 41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college managed to graduate
within five years, the Department of Education found in a study last year, but 66 percent of highincome students did. That gap had grown over recent years. “We need to recognize that the most
serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of
the rich and the children of the poor,” Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, said last
year when announcing that Harvard would give full scholarships to all its lowest-income
students. “And education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem.”
 There is certainly much to celebrate about higher education today. Many more students
from all classes are getting four-year degrees and reaping their benefits. But those broad gains
mask the fact that poor and working-class students have nevertheless been falling behind; for
them, not having a degree remains the norm.
 That loss of ground is all the more significant because a college education matters much
more now than it once did. A bachelor’s degree, not a year or two of courses, tends to determine
a person’s place in today’s globalized, computerized economy. College graduates have received
steady pay increases over the past two decades, while the pay of everyone else has risen little
more than the rate of inflation.
 As a result, despite one of the great education explosions in modern history, economic
mobility – moving from one income group to another over the course of a lifetime – has stopped
rising, researchers say. Some recent studies suggest that it has declined over the last generation.
 Put another way, children seem to be following the paths of their parents more than they
once did. Grades and test scores, rather than privilege, determine success today, but that success
is largely being passed down from one generation to the next. A nation that believes that
everyone should have a fair shake finds itself with a kind of inherited meritocracy.
 In this system, the students at the best colleges may be diversemale and female and of
various colors, religions and hometownsbut they tend to share an upper-middle-class
upbringing. An old joke that Harvard’s idea of diversity is putting a rich kid from California in
the same room as a rich kid from New York is truer today than ever; Harvard has more students
from California than it did in years past and just as big a share of upper-income students.
 Students like these remain in college because they can hardly imagine doing otherwise.
Their parents, understanding the importance of a bachelor’s degree, spent hours reading to them,
researching school districts and making it clear to them that they simply must graduate from
 Andy Blevins says that he too knows the importance of a degree, but that he did not while
growing up, and not even in his year at Radford University, 66 miles up the Interstate from
Chilhowie. Ten years after trading college for the warehouse, Mr. Blevins, 29, spends his days at
the same supermarket company. He has worked his way up to produce buyer, earning $35,000 a
year with health benefits and a 401(k) plan. He is on a path typical for someone who attended
college without getting a four-year degree. Men in their early 40’s in this category made an
average of $42,000 in 2000. Those with a four-year degree made $65,000.
 Still boyish-looking but no longer rail thin, Mr. Blevins says he has many reasons to be
happy. He lives with his wife, Karla, and their year-old son, Lucas, in a small blue-and-yellow
house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the middle of a stunningly picturesque Appalachian valley. He
plays golf with some of the same friends who made him want to stay around Chilhowie.
 But he does think about what might have been, about what he could be doing if he had the
degree. As it is, he always feels as if he is on thin ice. Were he to lose his job, he says,
everything could slip away with it. What kind of job could a guy without a college degree get?
One night, while talking to his wife about his life, he used the word “trapped.”
 “Looking back, I wish I had gotten that degree,” Mr. Blevins said in his soft-spoken lilt.
“Four years seemed like a thousand years then. But I wish I would have just put in my four
College Graduation Rates: Income Really Matters
By TAMI LUHBY
Published: November 28, 2011
 NEW YORK — It’s getting more difficult for low-income students to climb the economic
ladder as the college graduation gap between the rich and poor grows.
 While more students from all backgrounds are finishing college, the difference in graduation
rates between the top and bottom income groups has widened by nearly 50% over two decades.
 And since education is a key driver of upward mobility, this gulf means that it’s even harder
for the poor to prosper.
 Some 54% of students from wealthy families obtained bachelor’s degrees, said Martha
Bailey, an assistant economics professor at the University of Michigan. But only 9% of lowincome students got college diplomas.
 Bailey recently co-authored a paper looking at students who graduated in the late 1990s and
early 2000s and compared them to those in college two decades before. She found the wealthy
made great gains in graduation rates, while the poor only inched up over that time period.
 In the earlier group, 36% of the upper-income children graduated college and 5% of the poor
 Part of the reason is because more students from households earning at least $87,000
annually are going onto higher education. But children from families making less than $26,000
have not made the same advances, said Bailey.
 And while two-thirds of freshmen from wealthier households finish, only one-third of their
poorer classmates do.
 Other researchers, whose work has found similar discrepancies, have looked into why
children from low-income backgrounds don’t make it through college.
 One reason is the poor often go to lower-tier schools, said Tim Smeeding, the director for
the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These institutions
often have bigger classes and offer less individual attention and guidance.
 Also, their parents don’t have the financial means to aid their children.
 “We’ve got a problem in that we get low-income kids to college, but they don’t persist to
graduation,” Smeeding said. “It’s harder for them to find their way through. They get discouraged
and they drop out.”
 Failing to get a college degree makes it even harder for these individuals to escape the
bottom of the income barrel.
 Some 41% of students who come from families in the lowest income ranks move up to the
highest two rungs if they get a college degree, according to research from the Pew Economic
Mobility Project. But if they don’t, only 14% advance that far.
 At the same time, 45% of those without a diploma stay stuck in the lowest tier, while only
16% of their counterparts with a college degree do.
 That’s because so many better-paying jobs today require more education and skills that
workers can only get in college. Without a bachelor’s degree, many people get stuck in dead-end
jobs earning low wages.
 In fact, a college graduate working full-time for 40 years will earn $1 million more than
someone with just a high school degree, according to recent Census Bureau data.
 This is why it’s increasingly important for policy makers to promote and protect programs
that help students, particularly those from the lower income rungs, to attend and complete
college, experts said. This includes expanding tuition assistance for poorer children to give them
a better shot at future financial security.
 “The chance for upward mobility from the bottom without a college degree is extremely
limited,” said Erin Currier, project manager at Pew. “There is a significant wage premium for
having a college degree.”
ENG 111 FJT11
November 28, 2016
The Scale Already Tipped
 On its surface, college would appear to be a place where everyone has an equal
chance to succeed. College courses are hard, as their instructors are fond of saying, but they are
equally hard for everyone in the class, and every year, more and more students are fighting
through the material in order to earn a diploma. Unfortunately, the students who need it most are
less likely to graduate. In a large part because of the financial burden that college represents,
students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to drop out of college before
graduation even though dropping out negatively impacts their future earning potential.
 Many different research studies have shown that students from lower-income families
are more likely to drop out of college than students from higher-income families are. A
CNN.com article published in 2011 by Tami Luhby states only one-third of enrolled students
from lower-income families can be expected to graduate college, compared to two-thirds of
enrolled students from higher-income families. More alarmingly, Luhby claims that this disparity
between the graduation rate of wealthy students and that of poorer students is growing.
Comparison to data from an earlier study shows that she is correct; a 2005 article by David
Leonhardt of the New York Times gives the same graduation rate for higher-income students
66%but puts the rate for lower-income students at 41%. While the percentage of higherincome students who complete college has remained steady, the percentage of lower-income
students who complete college has dropped.
 One of the most common reasons for students from lower-income families to drop out
of college is the increasingly high cost of college tuition. In their 2008 study of the effects of
financial aid on the likelihood of lower income students dropping out, Rong Chen and Stephen
L. DesJardins reveal that the cost of tuition hits lower-income students much more severely than
their higher-income peers. Tuition, books, and other fees at most colleges and universities are the
same price for every student, but because students from lower-income families have less money
available to spend, meeting that price requires a much larger portion of their available funds.
According to Chen and DesJardins article, a four-year public school education for a student
from a higher-income family in 2008 would call for 10% of the familys total income. Chen and
DesJardins add that for a lower-income family, that number jumps to a whopping 47% (Chen
and DesJardins 2). This massive bill may not stop lower-income students from attending college
at first. Many students do not realize the true cost of a college education until after a semester or
a full year of paying for it, and others have nonrenewable scholarships or grants to defray the
initial costs. But few lower-income families can continue to pay out almost half their income for
the four or more years it takes to earn a bachelors degree, leading these students to drop out.
 Because paying for college is such a financial strain for these families, lower-income
students are more likely to enroll in cheaper schools. Unfortunately, cheaper schools are usually
also lower quality than the top-dollar institutions and are themselves another reason why students
from lower-income families drop out. Authors Ben Miller and Phuong Ly address some of the
ways that lower-quality schools impede students in the article College Dropout Factories.
Miller and Ly give examples of incompetent and very unhelpful counseling staff and classes held
with little to no structure, resulting in frustration and chaos. The authors go on to suggest that
these schools put no effort into improving their damaged systems because they are not held
accountable for their failure (21). Luhby also notes the correlation between cheaper schools and
high dropout rates, citing these schools larger class sizes and correspondingly smaller amounts
of individualized attention from instructors as part of the reason students drop out of college.
 That many students from lower-income families drop out of college before earning a
degree is particularly alarming because a college degree is one of the most promising ways for
these students to increase their earning potential. Luhby points out that among families from the
lowest income brackets, 45% of those without a diploma stay stuck in the lowest tier, while
only 16% of their counterparts with a college degree do. Over 40 years of employment, she
adds, the average difference in income between high school graduates and college graduates
totals $1 million dollars. Leonhardt likewise argues that students who complete their degrees
have more long-term earning potential than students who drop out. Leonhardt gives Andy
Blevins as an example. When Blevins dropped out of college to keep a job earning $6.75 an hour
plus bonuses, he felt he was earning plenty of money. Over the next ten years, however, his
income rose only to $35,000 per year, compared to an average $65,000 for college graduates,
and he has since described feeling trapped in his low-wage job, since there are fewer other
positions available for those without degrees.
 Blevins is only one of too many students from lower-income families who drop out of
college without earning a degree. Even though most of these students know the value of a
college degree, low-quality institutions and financial pressures make it hard for them to succeed.
But students who are thinking of dropping out need to think of the future and do everything they
can to stay in school. Dropping out now can lead to regrets later, like for Blevins, who says,
Looking back, I wish I had gotten that degree. Four years seemed like a thousand years then.
But I wish I would have just put in my four years (Leonhardt).
Chen, Rong, and Stephen DesJardins. Exploring the Effects of Financial Aid on the Gap in
Student Dropout Risks by Income Level. Research in Higher Education, vol. 49, no. 1,
Feb. 2008, pp. 1-18. ProQuest, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11162-007-9060-9.
Leonhardt, David. The College Dropout Boom. The New York Times, 24 May 2005,
Luhby, Tami. College Graduation Rates: Income Really Matters. CNN, 28 Nov. 2011,
Miller, Ben, and Phuong Ly. College Dropout Factories. The Washington Monthly, vol. 42, no.
9, Sep./Oct. 2010, pp. 20-26. ProQuest,
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