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College for All?

After 16-year-old Ron decided to attend Baltimore City’s Carver High School to learn about carpentry, he told Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, “I wanted to go there so I could get a trade. That’s what I am trying to do when I get out of school.”

In 2010, Ron was among 150 Baltimore youth (ages 15 to 24) DeLuca interviewed who had spent time in public housing. She and her colleagues wanted to study how school curriculum affects young people’s high school graduation rates. In this sample, 42 percent of youth did not graduate, choosing instead to get GEDs or take jobs, among other reasons. DeLuca discovered that these students might better engage in learning—and possibly stay in school—if career preparation classes were offered. “Then they can see the point of education,” she says. “A four-year college, they don’t really understand that. They think, ‘I want to be able to have a job.’”

As sociologists who study social factors that affect young people’s future outcomes, DeLuca and Karl Alexander, the John Dewey Professor of Sociology and department chair, are also finding out why some youth learn better than others. The answer varies: from access to resources to the ability to persevere through failure.

Differences in learning between low-income and middle-to-high-income children start in elementary school. That’s when disadvantaged youth who have limited access to enriching summer activities like camps and sports score lower on fall standardized tests than their more affluent peers, says Alexander, who followed 790 Baltimore City children of varying income levels from first grade to adulthood for his Beginning School Study. By high school, Alexander found, two-thirds of the achievement gap between these two groups of students could be traced back to how they spent those elementary school summers. “Learning patterns we see in the elementary years, they echo forward in time,” he says. “Once kids fall behind, it’s very hard for them to catch up.”

There are some low-income children who fare better on their fall tests—Alexander calls this group “exceptional summer learners”—but they often have access to summer activities, especially reading material from libraries. “Those kids tend to do a better job of maintaining academic skills over the summer months,” he says.

In high school, 40 percent of students do not take classes that prepare them for college or work, DeLuca and a colleague found after analyzing several studies, including the National Educational Longitudinal Study, in which a national sample of youth answered questions about school, home, and family when they were in 10th and 12th grades, among other times.  Because of a “college for all” ideology, as DeLuca calls it, many of these underserved youth attempt college, where they struggle to become part of the 25 to 30 percent of students who earn bachelor’s degrees. If they were prepared for both careers and college in high school, more youth could graduate from college or enter the workforce more prepared after high school graduation.

Still, across grade levels, home environments, especially neighborhoods of residence, can affect whether students are invested in learning at all. Since 2005, DeLuca has tracked attendance and test scores for nearly 3,500 children who are part of the Baltimore Mobility Project, a program that gave vouchers to 2,000 low-income families a little more than a decade ago so they could move to nonsegregated, higher-income neighborhoods with stronger school systems. Although preliminary results from 134 interviews show that some children are happier in their new schools because there are fewer fights, she is still working with the Maryland State Department of Education to compare data about grades and test scores. However, the data so far may be an indication of results to come: Once they changed schools, the number of BMP students in elementary school who scored proficient or higher in reading and math on standardized tests increased by more than 20 percent. About the BMP, DeLuca says, “There are a lot of layers we’re still trying to sort out.”