Best Time(s) to Help a Kid Succeed

A timely intervention can help a disadvantaged youngster find economic success as an adult. Stepping in early, scholars say, is cheaper and more effective.

Ms. Arzola's class: A year inpreschool prepares children to learn.  
National Journal
Janell Ross
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Janell Ross
Dec. 6, 2013, 2 a.m.

SAN ANT­O­NIO — Early last month, Mari­cella Perez thought she had all the pieces to­geth­er. Her es­says were done. The let­ters of re­com­mend­a­tion, re­ques­ted and com­plete. Her 99.7 grade-point av­er­age, and her track re­cord of co­ordin­at­ing stu­dent blood drives, rais­ing money for can­cer re­search, and serving as Theodore Roosevelt High School’s stu­dent-coun­cil pres­id­ent were de­scribed in de­tail. Perez’s ap­plic­a­tion for the Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin), her dream school, was done.

One Sat­urday af­ter­noon, however, sit­ting on her liv­ing-room couch, the pieces of her ap­plic­a­tion spread across the cof­fee table, the 18-year-old spot­ted a prob­lem: The ap­plic­a­tion cost $90 to file. “Hon­estly, I filled out the whole thing “¦ and then kind of sat on it,” she says. “I thought my mom was go­ing to kill me when it came time to put $90 in the mail.”

In Perez’s fam­ily, money is tight and ex­per­i­ence with col­lege ap­plic­a­tions is lim­ited. Her moth­er, the sole sup­port for Mari­cella and two young­er sib­lings, works as a med­ic­al as­sist­ant and at­tends night classes to be­come a li­censed vo­ca­tion­al nurse. Perez’s aunt, the only per­son in the ex­ten­ded fam­ily who has gradu­ated from col­lege, earned a de­gree from an on­line uni­versity last year.

Dur­ing the next two weeks, Perez grew so anxious that a high school guid­ance coun­selor no­ticed and pulled her in­to his of­fice. Perez, with her ster­ling re­cord, wasn’t even sure she would be able to ap­ply. The coun­selor in­tro­duced Perez to a nov­el concept: a fee waiver for low-in­come stu­dents.

Perez’s guid­ance coun­selor may have changed her life — a re­mind­er that an in­ter­ven­tion at the right mo­ment can have huge pay­offs that en­dure. In­deed, there are mul­tiple points dur­ing the life of a dis­ad­vant­aged child when a timely in­ter­ven­tion can help hugely. But in an era of slow eco­nom­ic growth and tight budgets, the re­sources aren’t avail­able to help every child at every crit­ic­al point. This raises a ques­tion: Which of these in­ter­ven­tions prom­ise the most bang for the buck?

Con­sider the choices. The first point of lever­age ar­rives be­fore birth: An ex­pect­ant moth­er’s men­tal and phys­ic­al health can help avoid a pre­ma­ture de­liv­ery, thereby im­prov­ing the child’s chances of learn­ing later. Then, ex­pand­ing ac­cess to high-qual­ity pre­kinder­garten pro­grams can in­crease a child’s odds of en­ter­ing school with es­sen­tial skills, ready to learn more. Once they’re in school, ex­tend­ing the amount of time chil­dren spend in the classroom has been shown to boost stu­dents who’ve fallen be­hind. Later come the col­lege conun­drums — help­ing dis­ad­vant­aged stu­dents get in­to col­lege and then com­plete a use­ful de­gree.

In­ter­ven­ing isn’t al­ways as simple or in­ex­pens­ive as meet­ing with a guid­ance coun­selor. As schol­ars grapple with the costs and be­ne­fits of in­ter­ven­ing at cru­cial times, poli­cy­makers around the coun­try have star­ted to weigh the ad­vant­ages and polit­ic­al risks of these com­pet­ing — and worthy — ob­ject­ives. Any de­bate that touches on poverty, preg­nancy, or how to edu­cate Amer­ica’s chil­dren is bound to raise ideo­lo­gic­al hackles.

In San Ant­o­nio, as in Wash­ing­ton, the res­ult of such a cal­cu­lus has pro­duced a push for great­er ac­cess to preschool. “We know a lot about the re­wards of provid­ing high-qual­ity early-child­hood edu­ca­tion,” said Cecil­ia Muñoz, dir­ect­or of Pres­id­ent Obama’s do­mest­ic policy staff. “The re­turn on in­vest­ment is huge.”

But things aren’t so simple. “We’ve looked at the num­bers,” said Isa­bel Sawhill, co­dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter on Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “Early is al­ways bet­ter. It’s of­ten cheap­er.” Still, she urges cau­tion. “There is no one pro­gram, one in­vest­ment. The ma­gic bul­let does not ex­ist.”

THE DEMO­GRAPH­IC VAN­GUARD

The fate of Mari­cella Perez, and of oth­ers like her, mat­ters not only to them but to every­one else. The no­tion that the United States can main­tain its glob­al eco­nom­ic edge by re­ly­ing on a shrink­ing share of re­l­at­ively af­flu­ent whites — who at­tend good schools with good teach­ers and ample re­sources, pre­kinder­garten through col­lege — amounts to a na­tion­al form of ma­gic­al think­ing. But dis­ad­vant­aged youths of every race and eth­ni­city find it hard to suc­ceed in an eco­nomy that in­creas­ingly re­quires more than a high school dip­loma to sur­vive in a shaky middle class.

Young Amer­ic­ans of col­or will soon dom­in­ate the na­tion’s work­force. Black and Latino stu­dents, nearly half of them from low-in­come house­holds, are already two-fifths of the pub­lic-school pop­u­la­tion. By 2038, fed­er­al pro­gnost­ic­at­ors say, ra­cial and eth­nic minor­it­ies will make up a ma­jor­ity of the coun­try’s work­force — and of the en­tire pop­u­la­tion by 2043. Lati­nos alone are pro­jec­ted to ac­count for 38 mil­lion new mem­bers of the labor force by 2050 — about 80 per­cent of its growth.

Few if any places in the United States are work­ing harder than San Ant­o­nio to pre­pare minor­ity youths to join an edu­cated work­force. The city pretty much has to.

“San Ant­o­nio is really at the van­guard of the way in which the demo­graphy of the United States is chan­ging,” said Char Miller, the au­thor of a book on San Ant­o­nio who was a long­time his­tory pro­fess­or at Trin­ity Col­lege here. “We have a minor­ity ma­jor­ity. Their edu­ca­tion­al fate, their health, their eco­nom­ic and so­cial op­por­tun­it­ies, are really go­ing to re­define what it means to be an Amer­ic­an — who we are and what people un­der­stand about us as a coun­try.”

Not long ago, San Ant­o­nio was known mostly for the Alamo. Now, as a city of 1.3 mil­lion, the sev­enth-most-pop­u­lous in the na­tion, more than 63 per­cent of res­id­ents are Latino, and 19 per­cent are poor.

Ju­li­an Castro has staked his may­or­alty — and his rising na­tion­al pro­file — on his am­bi­tions to help young San Ant­o­nians from de­prived back­grounds move in­to the eco­nom­ic main­stream. He has the street cred. The second-term may­or and his identic­al twin, Rep. Joa­quin Castro, D-Texas, were born to a poor single moth­er and — sup­por­ted by fam­ily and good teach­ers — wound up gradu­at­ing from Stan­ford Uni­versity and Har­vard Law School.

“I just want to make sure every oth­er young per­son has the op­por­tun­it­ies that I had,” the may­or said in an in­ter­view, dash­ing from a City Coun­cil meet­ing to a com­mem­or­a­tion of John F. Kennedy at a nearby Air Force base. “What we are do­ing is, we are try­ing to build a brain­power com­munity, mean­ing a very well-edu­cated mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion that is ready, will­ing, and able to take on jobs for the 21st cen­tury. You can’t get there without in­vest­ing in those that we know need the most help.”

San Ant­o­nio is pur­su­ing a full spec­trum of in­ter­ven­tions, ran­ging from dis­patch­ing med­ic­al spe­cial­ists and so­cial work­ers to ex­pect­ant moth­ers at high risk for pre­ma­ture de­liv­ery, to help­ing high school seni­ors fill out col­lege fin­an­cial-aid forms. The center­piece of Castro’s cam­paign was last year’s ref­er­en­dum on his pro­pos­al to raise the city sales tax by one-eighth of a cent to bring qual­ity pre­kinder­garten classes with­in every­one’s reach. Backed by loc­al busi­ness lead­ers, Castro ar­gued that too few 4-year-olds at­ten­ded pre-K to as­sure the city’s eco­nom­ic fu­ture. Des­pite op­pos­i­tion from the city’s af­flu­ent pre­cincts, 53.6 per­cent of voters agreed.

By 2020, San Ant­o­nio hopes — “needs,” Castro says — to raise the pro­por­tion of third-graders able to read at an ad­vanced level from the cur­rent 18 per­cent to 80 per­cent. Some pro­gress is ap­par­ent. The pro­por­tion of chil­dren who gradu­ate from high school, at 86 per­cent, has already ex­ceeded the city’s goal for 2020. But the pro­por­tion of third-graders who can read at grade level has shrunk (al­beit on a more rig­or­ous state test) to 73 per­cent.

“It’s a jour­ney,” Castro said.

BE­FORE THE BE­GIN­NING

On a week­day in early Novem­ber, at San Ant­o­nio’s Uni­versity Hos­pit­al, nurses in blue scrubs slipped around the neonat­al in­tens­ive-care unit. Nearly all of the 43 tiny res­id­ents were Latino ba­bies who had been born too soon. Some of the most crit­ic­ally ill lay in cut­ting-edge in­cub­at­ors that re­cre­ate the tem­per­at­ure and hu­mid­ity of the womb. In the new­est sec­tion of the unit, dim lights, the sound-sup­press­ing rub­ber floors, even the bed­side re­clin­ing chairs for par­ents have all been de­signed to min­im­ize the phys­ic­al and neur­o­lo­gic­al stressors that can cause preem­ies to lose, rather than gain, much-needed weight.

“We provide a truly es­sen­tial ser­vice for chil­dren in San Ant­o­nio — and, really, all over South Texas — every day,” said Rachel Rivas, the hos­pit­al’s dir­ect­or of new­born ser­vices. “But there is no ques­tion that it would be bet­ter “¦ if few­er chil­dren needed this kind of care.” 

She’s right. A grow­ing body of re­search shows a strong con­nec­tion between the so­cial con­di­tions in which chil­dren are con­ceived and brought to term and how well they will learn. Moth­ers who are poor dur­ing their preg­nan­cies are more likely to suf­fer from chron­ic stress, a bio­lo­gic­ally de­tect­able con­di­tion, ac­cord­ing to Eliza­beth Cor­win, dean of re­search at Emory Uni­versity’s School of Nurs­ing. The same is also true, she said, of middle-class black wo­men and second- and later-gen­er­a­tion Lat­i­nas. They face so­cial and eco­nom­ic dis­crim­in­a­tion that cre­ates physiolo­gic­al con­di­tions akin to the struggles of the poor. A re­cent study by Cor­win and col­leagues, mon­it­or­ing more than 100 moth­ers-to-be dur­ing their third tri­mester, found that chron­ic stress was as­so­ci­ated with poor reg­u­la­tion of in­flam­ma­tion, a risk factor for pre­ma­ture birth.

This, in turn, can have long-term ef­fects on a child’s edu­ca­tion. Mi­chael Kramer, an epi­demi­olo­gist at Emory’s School of Pub­lic Health, ex­amined the birth and school re­cords of thou­sands of Geor­gi­ans born between 1998 and 2003. When these chil­dren took state aca­dem­ic-as­sess­ment tests in first grade, those born pre­ma­turely were more likely to fail. The more pre­ma­ture the birth, the worse the child per­formed. Only 13 per­cent of the ba­bies born on time or less than three weeks early fell short on the first-grade test, com­pared with a third of the chil­dren born 13 to 20 weeks pre­ma­turely.

“What we found ex­plains some, but by no means all, of the aca­dem­ic achieve­ment gap,” Kramer said. “There are real dif­fer­ences we can make in edu­ca­tion by in­vest­ing in what hap­pens long be­fore chil­dren reach school.”

Last year, a ninth of Amer­ic­an chil­dren were born be­fore 37 weeks’ gest­a­tion, the highest rate in the in­dus­tri­al­ized world, ac­cord­ing to Ed­ward Mc­Cabe, med­ic­al dir­ect­or at the March of Dimes. That in­cluded nearly 17 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an ba­bies, nearly 12 per­cent of Lati­nos, and 10.5 per­cent of whites.

At least one state with a siz­able pres­ence of minor­it­ies has made strides in re­du­cing pre­ma­ture births. Cali­for­nia, where 38 per­cent of the popu­lace is Latino and nearly 7 per­cent is black, has been in­vest­ing in ex­pand­ing health care cov­er­age for wo­men of child-bear­ing age and in help­ing them stop smoking. The state re­duced its rate of pre­ma­ture births from 10.9 per­cent in 2007 to 9.6 per­cent in 2012. The rate in Texas, which has re­jec­ted the Af­ford­able Care Act’s ex­pan­sion of Medi­caid ser­vices for the poor, stands at 12.4 per­cent.

GET­TING READY FOR SCHOOL

Just after 7 a.m., on the north side of San Ant­o­nio, chil­dren barely big­ger than their back- packs hurry in­to the Pre-K 4 SA cen­ter. It’s un­season­ably chilly this fall morn­ing, and the preschool is sur­roun­ded by live oaks that fil­ter the sun. But that isn’t the only reas­on for the sense of ur­gency, as the chil­dren, par­ents, teach­ers, and ad­min­is­trat­ors make their way in.

San Ant­o­nio is in the first year of a city­wide ex­per­i­ment in all-day preschool. The pro­gram, which voters agreed to fund a year ago, re­serves most of its slots for stu­dents who are poor, don’t speak Eng­lish at home, or face oth­er dis­ad­vant­ages. The city’s first two Pre-K 4 SA cen­ters serve 660 stu­dents this year; two more schools are to open in 2014. With­in eight years, the sys­tem is ex­pec­ted to reach about 20,000 stu­dents — only a fifth, however, of the chil­dren un­der 5 who cur­rently live in San Ant­o­nio.

Even the law­makers in this small-gov­ern­ment state have joined in. For dec­ades, the Texas Le­gis­lature has fin­anced half-day pre-K for chil­dren who are poor, home­less, de­fi­cient in Eng­lish, in foster care, or (since 2005) have a par­ent on act­ive mil­it­ary duty. Still, few­er than three-fifths of the eli­gible chil­dren in San Ant­o­nio are en­rolled. Na­tion­wide, about 70 per­cent of 4-year-olds went to preschool in 2012, ac­cord­ing to an Or­gan­iz­a­tion of Eco­nom­ic Co­oper­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment study that ranked the U.S. 28th among 38 in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions.

Chil­dren of sim­il­ar so­cioeco­nom­ic back­grounds but of dif­fer­ent races ar­rive in preschool and kinder­garten without much of an aca­dem­ic-skills gap, ac­cord­ing to a study by eco­nom­ists Ro­land Fry­er Jr. and Steven Levitt. But ra­cial and eth­nic dif­fer­ences emerge early in a child’s school­ing. By the spring of first grade, a gap between white, black, and Latino stu­dents is found at all in­come levels. As chil­dren ad­vance through school, the dis­par­ity between black and white stu­dents gen­er­ally grows — be­cause of ef­fect­ively se­greg­ated schools of un­even qual­ity, ex­perts say — while the dis­tance between white and Latino stu­dents shrinks but doesn’t dis­ap­pear.

The evid­ence is com­pel­ling that qual­ity preschool mat­ters. Na­tion­ally, poor chil­dren who are sub­par read­ers in third grade are 13 times less likely to gradu­ate from high school by age 19, ac­cord­ing to a new study is­sued by the Hechinger Re­port, a non­profit news or­gan­iz­a­tion. A re­cent Brook­ings study found that 76 per­cent of young­sters who entered first grade well pre­pared went on to per­form strongly on as­sess­ment tests in middle school, while only 41 per­cent of stu­dents who lacked a qual­ity preschool did the same. A long-term study of 123 chil­dren that began in the 1960s found that, at age 40, the ones who’d at­ten­ded a qual­ity preschool were more likely to hold a job, and at high­er pay, and were less likely to have com­mit­ted crimes than those who hadn’t.

“There are many stud­ies — and when I say many, I mean many, many stud­ies — that show that early in­ter­ven­tion, es­pe­cially be­fore age 5 or 8, can be po­ten­tially very ef­fect­ive,” said Seong Hyeok Moon, a Uni­versity of Chica­go eco­nom­ist. “You can do things for your kids that are hard — very hard — and more ex­pens­ive when they get older. That’s what makes qual­ity early edu­ca­tion a bar­gain.” Moon cites neur­o­lo­gic­al evid­ence that a child’s first five years are crit­ic­al; if cer­tain skills aren’t learned by then, re­search­ers doubt they can be picked up later.

In his State of the Uni­on ad­dress this year, Obama called for uni­ver­sal pre-K, cit­ing re­search by No­bel eco­nom­ist James Heck­man that every $1 in­ves­ted winds up sav­ing $7 that would oth­er­wise be spent on re­medi­al and spe­cial edu­ca­tion, pub­licly fin­anced health care, and oth­er so­cial sup­ports. Le­gis­latures in 23 states (as of 2010) provided enough fund­ing to cre­ate pre-K pro­grams that meet eight of 10 bench­marks for qual­ity, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Cen­ter on the States.

The most ef­fect­ive preschool pro­grams have highly qual­i­fied teach­ers, small classes, a full-day cur­riculum, and par­ent­al en­gage­ment, ac­cord­ing to To­moko Wakabayashi, dir­ect­or of re­search at High Scope Edu­ca­tion­al Re­search Found­a­tion, a Michigan-based non­profit that spe­cial­izes in early child­hood edu­ca­tion. Some of what chil­dren learn is prac­tic­al, not aca­dem­ic, as Sawhill points out; even so, know­ing how to sit still, pay at­ten­tion, and fol­low rules pre­pares stu­dents for aca­dem­ic suc­cess. In San Ant­o­nio, Kath­leen Bruck, the CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, is per­suaded that qual­ity pre-K pro­grams bring the biggest bang for the buck.

A FEW EX­TRA MINUTES

Dur­ing the 2009-10 school year, a teach­er in San Ant­o­nio’s East Cent­ral School Dis­trict ran a small but re­veal­ing pi­lot pro­ject. Jananne Healey had spent a year lead­ing a classroom of a loc­al charter school op­er­ated by the San Ant­o­nio af­fil­i­ate of the Know­ledge Is Power Pro­gram, a na­tion­al net­work, and wanted to bring some of its tech­niques in­to her East Cent­ral fifth-grade classroom.

At this city’s four KIPP academies, where 93 per­cent of the stu­dents are Latino and 84 per­cent are poor, more than three-fourths of the fifth-graders earned sat­is­fact­ory or ad­vanced scores on state read­ing and math as­sess­ment tests, in line with stu­dents in San Ant­o­nio’s wealth­i­est neigh­bor­hoods. KIPP of­fi­cials at­trib­ute this suc­cess, in large part, simply to hav­ing stu­dents spend more time in school — an av­er­age of 1,755 hours a year, some 585 more than in the tra­di­tion­al U.S. pub­lic school.

The 33 fifth-graders in Healey’s East Cent­ral pub­lic-school ex­per­i­ment spent most of the hours between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. in class. She offered ex­tra in­struc­tion, some­times one-on-one, and broke stu­dents in­to small groups to fo­cus on par­tic­u­lar needs. She mon­itored what chil­dren mastered and what left them con­fused. At year’s end, all but one of them passed their state as­sess­ment ex­ams. This year, the pre­dom­in­antly low-in­come school dis­trict ad­ded 20 minutes to every stu­dent’s school day and an hour of op­tion­al ex­tra time for stu­dents in high school.

“A few minutes of ex­tra time can have a huge im­pact,” said Ash­ley Cholis, the school dis­trict’s dir­ect­or of ex­ec­ut­ive ser­vices. “Twenty minutes may not sound like much, but that adds up to an hour and 40 minutes of ex­tra in­struc­tion time a week. When used cor­rectly, the way that we are work­ing very hard to do, that’s something.”

Cholis can look to a grow­ing body of re­search. A 2011 study of two dozen charter schools by the Na­tion­al Bur­eau of Eco­nom­ic Re­search found that for high-risk stu­dents, ex­tend­ing learn­ing time was more ef­fect­ive than re­du­cing class sizes, spend­ing more per pu­pil, or up­grad­ing teach­ers’ cre­den­tials. In a troubled middle school in Fall River, Mass., par­ents and school lead­ers ad­ded 300 hours to the school year start­ing in 2006 to as­sure more aca­dem­ic time and the sur­viv­al of art, mu­sic, and for­eign-lan­guage in­struc­tion. With­in four years, the stu­dents’ scores on state ex­ams rose by 34 per­cent­age points in math and by 10 points in read­ing.

Adding to a stu­dent’s school time isn’t al­ways pop­u­lar. “You are talk­ing about chan­ging school sched­ules and lo­gist­ic­al ar­range­ments that have, in many places, been largely left un­changed for more than 100 years,” said Jen­nifer Dav­is, pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Cen­ter on Time in Learn­ing, a Bo­ston-based non­profit. Teach­ers and their uni­ons are wary of longer hours, loc­al budgets can’t af­ford ex­tra com­pens­a­tion, and voters are re­luct­ant to raise teach­ers’ pay. Still, Dav­is said, “after years of hard work to isol­ate the ef­fects of ex­ten­ded learn­ing time, we have the proof.”

AS­PIR­ING TO COL­LEGE

Mari­cella Perez is hardly the only high school­er in San Ant­o­nio in need of prac­tic­al help in get­ting to col­lege. “What we are do­ing in San Ant­o­nio is rolling up our sleeves and get­ting in­to the nitty-gritty,” said Eyra Perez (un­re­lated to Mari­cella), ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of San Ant­o­nio’s Edu­ca­tion Part­ner­ship.

One of the non­profit’s pro­jects is Café Col­lege, where stu­dents can get help in com­plet­ing ap­plic­a­tions and can meet with col­lege ad­mis­sions of­ficers. The pro­ject has trained dozens of busi­ness own­ers and fin­an­cial ad­visers to help stu­dents fill out the fed­er­al ap­plic­a­tion for fin­an­cial aid, which in­cludes pages of com­plic­ated ques­tions — boost­ing by al­most 6 per­cent the num­ber of San Ant­o­nio stu­dents who com­pleted the forms last year. Stu­dents who ap­ply for aid are half again as likely to en­roll in col­lege and nearly 75 per­cent more likely to fin­ish their fresh­man year, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is in 2011 by the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Stu­dent Fin­an­cial Aid Ad­min­is­trat­ors. The num­bers are even high­er for low-in­come stu­dents.

Still, Eyra Perez is quick to ac­know­ledge that in­spir­ing more young San Ant­o­nians to at­tend col­lege won’t be easy. This city sees more of its stu­dents fin­ish high school than does the na­tion as a whole (86 per­cent versus 78 per­cent), but few­er of those gradu­ates go on to col­lege (50 per­cent versus 68 per­cent). Fix­ing that would re­quire cre­at­ing what Perez calls a “col­lege-go­ing and col­lege-com­plet­ing cul­ture,” in­clud­ing mak­ing it clear to par­ents and chil­dren which ca­reers are ex­pec­ted to blos­som or with­er.

Na­tion­ally, the once-vast gaps between the share of white, black, and Latino teen­agers head­ing to col­lege have nearly dis­ap­peared. In­deed, Latino high school gradu­ates out­paced whites (70 per­cent versus 67 per­cent) in start­ing col­lege in 2012, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al data. Some 56 per­cent of black gradu­ates and 81 per­cent of Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans did the same.

However, these num­bers con­ceal the tenacity of edu­ca­tion­al in­equal­ity, as meas­ured by the sorts of col­leges in which stu­dents en­roll. Ac­cord­ing to a Geor­getown Uni­versity study this year, 82 per­cent of newly en­rolled white stu­dents went to se­lect­ive col­leges and uni­versit­ies between 1995 and 2009, com­pared with only 13 per­cent of Lati­nos and 9 per­cent of blacks. Some 72 per­cent of His­pan­ic fresh­men and 68 per­cent of first-year Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans head to less-se­lect­ive schools or those that ac­cept any­one with a high school dip­loma (or the equi­val­ent) and a check­book. 

This isn’t simply a mat­ter of prestige. Highly se­lect­ive schools tend to boast lar­ger en­dow­ments, spend more per pu­pil, and of­fer more fin­an­cial aid as grants rather than loans. This in­creases the chances, the Geor­getown study found, that their stu­dents will fin­ish col­lege and earn sub­stan­tially more money over their life­times than stu­dents who at­tend less-se­lect­ive schools. 

Stella Flores, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or of pub­lic policy and high­er edu­ca­tion at Vander­bilt Uni­versity, says the pop­u­lar no­tion that a two-year com­munity col­lege is al­ways the prag­mat­ic, frugal route is too simplist­ic. Black and Latino stu­dents, she says, are of­ten en­cour­aged to at­tend schools — com­munity col­leges and for-profit private col­leges — in which gradu­ation rates lag.

Con­sider the ex­per­i­ence of Daniel Flores (no re­la­tion to Stella), a nat­ive of Peru who gradu­ated from San Ant­o­nio’s Earl War­ren High School in 2009 with a 4.0 GPA. His guid­ance coun­selor told him not to both­er ap­ply­ing to a pro­gram that con­nects prom­ising minor­ity stu­dents with elite col­leges will­ing to provide schol­ar­ships — that a loc­al or com­munity col­lege seemed a bet­ter fit, where “someone like [me] can get in,” as Flores re­called. He ap­plied any­way, with a few teach­ers’ help. One af­ter­noon, he got home to find his moth­er in tears: North­west­ern Uni­versity had offered him ad­mis­sion on a full schol­ar­ship.

“I knew, even at 17, what this was go­ing to mean for my life,” the 21-year-old Flores says now. He will gradu­ate in June and then at­tend North­west­ern’s busi­ness school.

THE LAST SHOT

Stu­dents in com­munity col­leges, where 45 per­cent of the na­tion’s un­der­gradu­ates en­roll, are 9 per­cent to 14 per­cent less likely to earn a dip­loma — by Stella Flores’s ana­lys­is of fed­er­al data — than stu­dents at four-year schools. Among stu­dents who score in the top half on en­trance ex­ams, the Geor­getown study found, 51 per­cent of whites earn a bach­el­or’s de­gree, com­pared with 34 per­cent of blacks and 32 per­cent of His­pan­ics.

The biggest reas­on for these dis­par­it­ies is that so many stu­dents ar­rive un­pre­pared, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by the Uni­versity of Mis­souri and the Na­tion­al Bur­eau of Eco­nom­ic Re­search. It found that the dif­fer­ence in aca­dem­ic skills of in­com­ing stu­dents ac­counts for 65 per­cent of the gap in gradu­ation rates between white and minor­ity wo­men, and for 86 per­cent of the gap among men.

Re­medi­al courses, which of­fer no cred­it to­ward a de­gree, must be taken by 28 to 40 per­cent of all stu­dents who en­roll in col­lege and of­ten by 50 per­cent of those at­tend­ing com­munity col­leges, the Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of State Le­gis­latures has found. Stu­dents who need this sort of help are more likely to drop out. Ef­forts to im­prove re­medi­al edu­ca­tion in­clude short-but-in­tens­ive courses — al­gebra in a single term, say — and classes that in­teg­rate re­medi­al train­ing in­to cred­it-bear­ing courses. These op­tions seem to in­crease the chance that stu­dents re­turn to school the fol­low­ing year, ac­cord­ing to Thomas Bailey, a re­search­er at Columbia Uni­versity’s Teach­ers Col­lege.

“We should not nix com­munity col­lege,” Bailey said. “They are still the last and only shot for some stu­dents — in many cases, stu­dents that have been failed all along the line.”

It’s un­for­tu­nate that so many dis­ad­vant­aged stu­dents reach col­lege age fa­cing their last shot at pre­par­ing for a life of eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity. All too of­ten, their pre­vi­ous chances have fallen short, and no one has stepped in at the right times to help. Re­search has con­firmed what we know by in­stinct: Start­ing out badly in life makes it harder to suc­ceed as an adult. The surest route to a middle-class life is to start out well. (See pp. 10-11.)

But for young Amer­ic­ans who don’t, at which points does it make the most sense to step in? By the time a stu­dent reaches col­lege, try­ing to make up for past de­fi­cien­cies is ex­pens­ive and less likely to suc­ceed. The surest and cheapest way to as­sure dis­ad­vant­aged youths a place in an eco­nomy that needs them is by step­ping in early rather than late. Early in­ter­ven­tions can have cas­cad­ing ef­fects, schol­ars ex­plain, be­cause they stave off the need for in­ter­ven­tions later.

The op­tim­al solu­tion was on dis­play one re­cent morn­ing out­side the Pre-K 4 SA cen­ter, as a fath­er fumbled with a seat belt.

“Come on, Daddy,” his 4-year-old daugh­ter ex­hor­ted in Span­ish, tug­ging at her fath­er’s hand. “They need me in my class.”

We all do.

The au­thor is a New York journ­al­ist who is writ­ing a book on race and eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity, to be pub­lished next year.

CLA­RI­FIC­A­TION: The Hechinger Re­port was in­ac­cur­ately de­scribed in an earli­er ver­sion of this story; it is a non­profit news or­gan­iz­a­tion.

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