National Literature

What Poverty Does to Children

Poverty creates a mind/body condition that changes the brains of children in economic distress, leading to life-long health and educational/cognitive barriers to success.

During their preschool and elementary years, poor children…

  • Have heightened levels of poverty-generated stress hormone cortisol that persists even in adults who have attained economic and educational parity.
  • Make worse food choices because appetite and eating habits become altered by chronically higher levels of cortisol. (Cartwright, et al., 2003).
  • Live in families that move twice as often, get evicted five times as much (Federman et al., 1996).
  • Experience more community violence; from an unsafe home neighborhood or a dangerous path to school which can hurt academic performance (Schwartz & Gorman, 2003).
  • Parents are often faced with irregular work hours, multiple jobs, or extended periods of unemployment, and seldom are familiar with postsecondary options, therefore unable to help their children prepare for entrance to college.

During high school, low-income students…

  • Are unlikely to attend schools with strong college-going culture, to experience early acculturation activities like college visits and summer programs.
  • Have parents who are faced with irregular work hours, multiple jobs, or extended periods of unemployment, and seldom are familiar with postsecondary options
  • Are more likely to work as teenagers to support the family, missing out on cultural activities at school that would have better prepared them for the social life of college
  • Are often at a triple disadvantage when it comes to advising and mentorship: their schools have fewer counselors, they can’t afford extra advising or test prep, and they often cannot turn to their parents or peers for college insight.

During college, low-income students are likely to…

  • Be extremely stressed by family unemployment, hunger, loss of home
  • Need to work to support their family as well as fund their college education
  • Drop out without completing college, despite preparation comparable to more-affluent peers.
    “The proverbial bottom line is that, with very few exceptions, disparities in educational attainment by SES are pervasive in American public higher education and cannot be explained away by associated differences in academic preparation.” William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Need remedial courses that hinders graduation—9 out of 10 never complete a two or four-year degree. Visit Complete College America’s website for more information.

Why College Prep Programs are so Important for Low Income Students

  • Without a college degree, children born in the lowest fifth of the income distribution children have a 45 percent chance of staying in the bottom, and just a 5 percent chance of moving to the top.
  • Those who earn a college degree increase their chances of moving out of the bottom by 50 percent. Isaacs, Julia B., Isabel Sawhill, and Ron Haskins. 2008. Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
  • “Even among those who had the same measured cognitive skills as teenagers, inequality in college entry and completion across income groups is greater today than it was two decades ago.” Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, “Inequality in Postsecondary Attainment.” 2011. In Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, eds., Whither Opportunity: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, pp. 117-132. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

College Prep Programs That Work

Getting more students ready for college will require an all-hands-on-deck approach with multiple early interventions to tackle the myriad obstacles low-income students face in preparing for college, including early interventions to connect low-income students to college, summer programs and other enrichment activities, financial aid awareness and opportunities, and early exposure to STEM education and college level coursework.

While the President continues to push for changes that keep college affordable for all students and families, we can and must be doing more to get more low-income students prepared for college, enrolled in quality institutions, and graduating. See the following article from the Executive Office of the President, Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income students: Promising Models and a Call to Action.

The following are some large-scale projects with demonstrated success in preparing low-income students for success in college.


90% of Posse scholars, disadvantaged students recruited during their senior year and provided with cohort-based college workshops and mentoring as well as full scholarships from their receiving college, graduate from college.

Quick Facts


The U.S. Department of Education GEAR UP grants fund programs that provide mentoring, outreach, and support services for students from sixth grade through college. U.S. Department of Education.


I Have a Dream Foundation

IHDF sponsors cohorts of 50-100 children at low income elementary schools and housing projects and follows these “Dreamers” for 12-15 years through high school, providing mentorship, counseling, employment and community service opportunities, as well as last-dollar scholarships. A 2001 study found that IHDF had a dramatic impact on high school completion and college enrollment for Dreamers, averaging 10-15 percentage points higher than their peers.

College Track

College Track provides comprehensive services to students from 9th grade through college graduation. Over 90 percent of College Track students are accepted into 4-year universities, compared to only 50 percent of non-College Track students in the same neighborhoods. Additionally, College Track’s students graduate from college at 2.5 times the rate of their peers.

College Track

College Possible

Recent college graduates are trained to provide free college advising services to low-income students. 98 percent of College Possible students have earned college admission and nearly 80 percent of college enrollees have already graduated or are actively working toward their degree. Christopher Avery, “Evaluation of the College Possible Program: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial,” NBER Working Paper 19562, October 2013.

What Colleges Can Do

Recruitment Strategies
  • Text messages detailing college-prep tasks and deadline reminders in senior year increased enrollment by nearly 3 percentage points at a cost of just $7 per student. Summer Text Messages
  • Financial aid workshops. Many low-income families believe that college – any college – may be unaffordable. “Financial literacy about college affordability is an example of an activity that could occur as early as 9th grade. CEE What Works Clearinghouse, “Helping Students Navigate the Path to College: What High Schools Can Do,” September 2009
  • More opportunities for low-income students to visit campus or engage with alumni
  • Summer and/or winter session programs that provide additional advising to low-income students.
  • Summer enrichment programs for elementary school students that receive free or reduced-price school lunches
  • Micro-scholarship programs for high school students to increase their achievement
  • STEM summer programs that offer high school students access to research and professionals to encourage interest and success in STEM fields
  • Partnerships with local high schools to create programs that span high school and provide a guarantee of admission to college with financial support upon program completion.
  • College faculty and students as tutors for low-income high school students
Assistance During College
  • Provide funding for low-income students to take unpaid internships or study abroad in order to equalize the experiences that low-income and wealthier students receive in college
  • Provide additional support services including academic assistance and mentoring
  • Retool developmental/remedial courses: Co-enroll students in remedial and standard sections of the same subject

When students enter college underprepared for core subjects such as math and English they are far less likely to succeed. Research has shown that the remedial courses designed to “catch” these students are actually more likely to hold them back. Remedial courses often act as gatekeepers to higher education, and in their current form they let too few students through. Only one in four students who enter a remedial course in a community college will earn a degree or certificate at that institution. Even when they participate in remediation, these students tend to fare no better in later coursework than similarly underprepared peers who did not take remedial coursework. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:12).