Finding Educational Opportunity in Poverty

Receiving support and guidance is one of the challenges that students in poverty face when attempting to secure scholarships and pursue higher education.
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Receiving support and guidance is one of the challenges that students in poverty face when attempting to secure scholarships and pursue higher education. Talented students with great potential can fall through the cracks if they never find the help they need to overcome income disadvantages. There are a combination of factors that contribute to this - including family relationships, access to needs-based scholarships, as well as economic growth and recession.

Across the broad population of the United States, talent is equally distributed but equal access to educational opportunity is not. Carl Hermanns, an associate professor at Arizona State University recognized this by stating, "We need to understand and address those inequities so that every child, in every classroom, every day is being provided excellent and equitable educational opportunities to find success."

Poverty in particular limits the opportunities available to those families. Hermanns continues, "It's easy to be passionate about that because you see so many children who just aren't getting the opportunities they deserve."

Poverty and education are linked. This connection extends to the relationship between parent and child. Parents who graduate college are more much likely to have children who also graduate from college. A 2014 College Board / National Journal poll highlights this relationship. 76 percent of people with parents who each have degrees said they entered a two or four-year college immediately following high school. Of those families where neither parent possessed a degree, only 37 percent went into college immediately following High School.

It certainly stands to reason that the attitudes and educational experiences of parents can help shape the beliefs of their children, especially as it pertains to their overall potential for success. Parental expectations and encouragement are powerful factors that can push their children toward following in their footsteps. This push is often enough to get students into the right situation to complete their education. Ronald Brownstein's article "Are College Degrees Inherited?" elaborates on these college completion rates:

"Of those who pursued a two- or four-year degree or vocational education immediately after high school, 63 percent reported completing their degree, while 37 percent said they did not. Of those who didn't finish their degree, 40 percent said they are still trying."

Setting expectations and encouraging prospective students to pursue higher education is the first step toward creating greater opportunity. Seeing firsthand that it is possible to pursue and obtain an education is powerful and transformative. Cultivating the unique talents of each student can provide a multitude of ways to earn scholarships. Receiving mentorship from trusted teachers and advisors can prove invaluable in navigating the other aspects of financial aid and grants - particularly those geared toward students from lower-income homes.

In the case of merit-based scholarships, middle and upper-income students receive them based on test scores and grades - not whether they need help to pay for school. Twelve states spend more on merit-based aid rather than need-based aid and this results in students who can already afford college receiving aid. Donald Heller, dean of the Michigan State University College of Education remarked, "If the goal in the state is to increase the number of people getting college degrees, it doesn't do any good to subsidize students who are going to go to college anyways." Those students who don't benefit from financial support at home rely on receiving grants, scholarships, and other types of aid to have an equal educational opportunity. A balance between merit and and need-based aid is necessary largely because of this dilemma.

David Kirby is a columnist. You can find more of his work at Forbes.

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