EMERGE-Ing from the Shadows: Houston Tackles the Challenge of Getting More High-Achieving, Low-Income Students to Attend Ivy League and Tier One Universities

By Grier, Terry B. | Phi Delta Kappan, May 2014 | Go to article overview

EMERGE-Ing from the Shadows: Houston Tackles the Challenge of Getting More High-Achieving, Low-Income Students to Attend Ivy League and Tier One Universities


Grier, Terry B., Phi Delta Kappan


During my first high school commencement celebrations in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) in 2009, I shook hands with and congratulated our high school graduates as they crossed the stage to receive their hard-earned diplomas. "Where are you going to college?" I asked each one--and heard surprising answers. Very few indicated they were planning to attend Ivy League/ Tier One universities, including our highly accomplished valedictorians and salutatorians. My senior staff had become aware of this situation, and, like me, they felt it was worth investigating. Given the academic performance of many of our top-level students and the fact that highly selective colleges and universities offer high-achieving, low-income students so much financial aid, it seemed puzzling that students would choose to attend far less-selective or nonselective institutions (Hoxby & Avery, 2012).

Some of the phenomenon was understandable. Eighty-three percent of HISD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and 92% are nonwhite. Many of our families live at a disadvantage and raise their children in communities with limited resources. Even some of our most talented graduates must enter the workforce, at least part-time, to help their families, and, for some, their culture is not familiar or comfortable with the idea of a young person going far from home for an education that's available in their community. Any of these factors can make it harder for our young people to reach their potential.

As we dug deeper into the why, we decided to look at where these high performers were attending colleges. We found that many of our academically talented students were attending local colleges, universities, and community colleges, or entering the workforce. In fact, large numbers of our high-achieving, low-income black and Hispanic students mirrored the national norm by being tracked into two-year colleges and open-access four-year colleges (Carnevale & Strohl, 2013).

To learn more, we did focus groups with high school students who fit into this group and asked if they'd ever considered attending Ivy League or Tier One universities. Some said they were applying to selective colleges, but most said no for a variety of reasons:

* "Schools 'like that' are too expensive and my family is poor."

* "My parents would never agree for me to go to college that far away from home."

* "My friends are here in Houston."

* "I need to work and go to college at the same time to help support my family."

What we heard was consistent with research that shows that for every high-achieving, low-income student who applies to selective colleges, about 15 high-achieving, high-income students apply (Hoxby & Avery, 2012).

What was eye-opening though was that most of the students didn't fully understand the value of attending a select, Ivy League/Tier One university. They also didn't realize that more than 62,000 black and Hispanic high school students every year who graduate in the top half of their high school classes and come from the bottom half of the income distribution don't get a two- or four-year degree within eight years of high school graduation (Carnevale & Strohl, 2013). If these students had attended the top 468 colleges and graduated at similar rates, 73% could have received diplomas. Where you go to college matters, and we needed to get that message across to our students.

Ratcheting up rigor

Students from across the district told us they didn't feel prepared for highly selective universities because their high schools offered a limited number of Advanced Placement or other rigorous courses.

They were right. Only three of our 45 high schools offered 15 or more Advanced Placement courses. Most offered one or two; a number of high schools offered no AP courses. Within a month, we began discussing with high school principals how to expand Advanced Placement courses to all high schools. …

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