Closing the Graduation Gap: How Colleges Can Reverse Higher Education’s Greatest Inequity

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While many in higher education have long been aware of the disparity in dropout rates between low-income students and their wealthier peers, a number of recent studies have shed light on just how great this inequity is. At 80 percent of U.S. colleges and universities, Pell-Grant-eligible students graduate at rates lower than their more affluent peers, according to new data from the think tank Third Way.    

This issue, however, is not irresolvable. Some schools and organizations have devised and implemented data-based solutions to improve the graduation rates of some of the most vulnerable students — many of which have proven effective. 

Fabian Pfeffer, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and team lead of the Inequality Lab, says that improving graduation rates for students from low-income backgrounds requires an understanding of the scope of this issue. In a recent study, Pfeffer found that those from families with a net worth in the bottom 40 percent of U.S. households account for just under 12 percent of new college graduates — a figure that has essentially remained stagnant since the mid-90s. By comparison, students from families with a net worth in the top 20 percent account for 60 percent of new college graduates — representing a nearly 15 percent increase during the same time period.

These figures demonstrate that the graduation gap is growing despite increased college access for lower- and middle-income Americans, Pfeffer says. “It is a pretty linear relationship,” he says. “With every single step on the wealth ladder, there’s an additional advantage in the education system.” 

He believes the findings shed light on the relationship between educational outcomes and growing wealth inequality in the U.S. This disparity is especially concerning when considered along with race, as the average African American household has a net worth that is just 10 percent of that of the average white household.

“There’s this idea that college is the great equalizer in America,” Pfeffer says. “It can still equalize your opportunities in the labor market, but it doesn’t take away from the problem of this large and increasing inequality regarding who gets to have a college degree.”

Indeed, there is evidence to support the idea that the current higher education system is actually perpetuating economic and racial inequality in the U.S. despite large-scale efforts to enroll and support low-income students. Nearly half of the nation’s 7.3 million Pell Grant recipients, for example, fail to complete a baccalaureate degree in six years, according to the report from Third Way. By comparison, non-Pell students have a completion rate of 65 percent. This issue disproportionately affects underrepresented groups, as 60 percent of Pell recipients are students of color. Individuals who receive Pell Grants are also more likely to have dependents, be over the age of 24, and be the first in their family to attend college.

Furthermore, low-income students who drop out are often worse off economically than they would have been had they never enrolled. Eighty-eight percent of Pell recipients take out student loans, and those who fail to earn a degree are left to repay this debt while having limited access to job opportunities.

Bruce Vandal
Bruce Vandal

Bruce Vandal, senior vice president for implementation at Complete College America (CCA), a nonprofit that helps schools close the graduation gap, says one of the most common reasons low-income students become discouraged on the path to graduation is that they are often placed in remedial education classes. While these courses are supposed to help them prepare for college-level math and English, they also add to the time and cost it takes to earn a degree.  

“Essentially, what colleges are asking these students to do is to take one, two, or even three semesters of extra math or English courses that don’t count for credit toward a degree,” says Vandal, adding that first-year students are often placed in remedial education based on brief assessments rather than prior academic performance.

GSU’s campus in downtown Atlanta, Ga. 
GSU’s campus in downtown Atlanta, Ga.

According to CCA research, 37 percent of Pell students at four-year schools are required to take at least one remedial course upon entering. At two-year schools, this figure is 69 percent, leading many to exhaust their financial aid before completing their degree. Furthermore, those who postpone taking required college-level math and English beyond their first year are much less likely to graduate. “We know from data that students who complete their math and English [prerequisite] courses in the first year are seven times more likely to earn a postsecondary credential,” says Vandal. 

CCA has devised several innovative solutions to help individual schools, university systems, states, and other educational organizations address this issue. Under its Momentum Pathways strategy, colleges replace remedial courses with specially designed tutoring services, one-credit courses, or labs. Underprepared students are required to use these supports concurrent with their enrollment in first-year, college-level math and English classes, thus allowing them to get extra assistance without prolonging the path to graduation. 

In addition, the Momentum Pathways strategy is focused on changing math requirements to allow students in non-STEM-related fields to take statistics or other courses that are more relevant to their majors as opposed to algebra or calculus. The organization also assists schools with implementing a model to ensure all of their students complete 30 credit hours per academic year, which involves making sure institutions have dedicated academic advising and mentoring to help guarantee that students are taking the courses they need in order to graduate. 

“We actually transformed our mission to put closing [achievement] gaps at the center of what we’re doing on many levels because we recognize that we cannot dramatically increase overall college completion rates without addressing [this gap]. [The two] go hand in hand,” Vandal says. 

Similar solutions are revolutionizing academic pathways for low-income students at the institutional level. Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta and Stony Brook University (SBU) in New York have been widely recognized for their success graduating underprivileged students. 

Too often, students take a “wrong turn” that can delay or discourage them, such as failing a prerequisite or registering for the wrong class, says Timothy Renick, PhD, senior vice president for student success at GSU. First-generation students, who are often also low-income, are especially vulnerable because they don’t have people whom they can consult about such issues, he says. 

To prevent these setbacks, GSU has implemented an advising system that monitors every one of its nearly 51,000 students for 800 risk factors that the school has identified as increasing an individual’s chances of dropping out. When a student exhibits one of these behaviors — underperforming on a test, for example — an academic adviser is notified within 48 hours so that they can quickly intervene by contacting the student and offering solutions, such as tutoring or setting specific goals to get back on track. Since implementing this measure six years ago, Renick says GSU has conducted 250,000 interventions.

This system is one of several measures implemented by the university during the 2008 recession, when enrollment of low-income students doubled from 30 percent to 60 percent. With a student body that is nearly 70 percent African American, innovations such as this have helped GSU graduate more of these students than any other nonprofit institution in the U.S. for the last five years. It was also recently ranked 25th in the nation by the Brookings Institution for helping to advance students’ social mobility; the average GSU graduate comes from a household earning less than $25,000 per year but makes $80,000 within 15 years of graduation, according to Renick. 

At SBU, where one-third of students receive Pell Grants, the graduation rate for recipients is 74 percent — a figure that is actually 3 percent higher than that for non-Pell students. Lee Bitsóí, EdD, chief diversity officer for SBU, credits the school’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) with helping achieve these results. Every year, the program provides 200 low-income freshmen with a summer bridge experience designed to help them “come up to speed” with their middle- and high-income classmates, Bitsóí says. 

“If your high school did not offer AP courses in math or science, this program gives you the opportunity to really strengthen your skills and go right into entry-level coursework,” he explains. Because many SBU students choose to pursue rigorous STEM research and careers, skill development in these areas is essential.

Similar to GSU, SBU has instituted an advisement model that monitors all students who may be at risk of falling behind. As a high-ranking research institution with a 40 percent acceptance rate, SBU was able to identify common risk factors for high-achieving students, says Alida Almonte-Gianna, media relations manager for SBU. The university employs 50 advisers who are dedicated solely to identifying and intervening when these situations arise — for example, when a student fails to declare a major in their first semester. Since launching this system in 2014, SBU has increased four-year graduation rates from 45 percent to nearly 60 percent, according to Almonte-Gianna.   

The university’s dedication in this area has allowed it to drastically increase access to job opportunities for those from underprivileged backgrounds. According to the American Association of Universities, SBU was recently ranked third among public research universities for helping students increase their social mobility.

Renick notes that the benefits of supporting low-income students don’t just equate to better earnings potential for them, but also better quality of life for them and their families and improved financial well-being for the communities in which they live. 

More than anything else, though, he believes that closing the graduation gap is central to the overall mission of higher education. “It is our responsibility as postsecondary institutions to [be accountable] for the fact that, in many cases, we are the source of these gaps,” Renick says. “We’ve created all kinds of systems that help feed the discrepancies that exist between graduation rates, so we need to take responsibility for correcting those problems.”

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Lee Bitsóí is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. For more information about the success strategies used by Georgia State University, visit