How Money, Math, and Mom Fit Into the College Readiness Equation

August 2014

Bringing the families of low-income students into discussions of how to pay for college is one of the key messages Sara Goldrick-Rab shared at the Oregon GEAR UP SUCCESS Retreat. The event, focused on involving educators in college and career readiness issues, was supported by Education Northwest.

During her sessions, Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Wisconsin Hope Lab, shared the findings of her 10 years of research on college-going by low-income students.

In an interview the day before the retreat, Goldrick-Rab said that academics, finances, and family are often seen as separate challenges, but she’s interested in exploring the intersections.

When you look at the data on what’s being done in college readiness, she said, you find too few students are having an in-depth conversation on going to college, and when those conversations do happen, families aren’t often involved. “Students thinking about college should have a discussion that involves long-term planning and problem solving,” she said. “They should visualize ways of making ends meet while in college, and then come up with a strategy.”

In her presentation, she spoke about the challenges faced by low-income college-bound students, particularly boys. The main factors she considers are money (“Financial challenges bring about academic challenges”), math (“The subject that always gets you is math, and a bad grade can screw up your financial aid”), and Mom (“Family structures often put Mom front and center”).

She elaborated on the challenges students face from their families:

Young men often find themselves trying to support Mom—financially and emotionally—while in college, and that creates another level of difficulty. It’s hard enough to be the first generation guy to go to college, but they also feel really bad about leaving home. Families are not assisted in getting ready for college, and the question is, how can we better support families?—Sara Goldrick-Rab

When it comes to advice on bringing families into college-planning discussions, she suggested approaching it in a respectful way. “Moms don’t want guidance counselors coming along to tell them what to do about their sons.”

She also said that educators do not need to worry that talking about making ends meet will scare people away from going to college. “It’s worse to try and fail than to worry too much about debt,” she said. “We need to help them go be successful. We need to be realistic without being too pessimistic.”

View the presentation featuring the data and findings Goldrick-Rab shared in her GEAR UP presentation.

Oregon GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is supported by a six-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the contributions of many community partners. The goal of the GEAR UP program is to ensure that Oregon’s low-income, middle school and high school students are prepared for, pursue, and succeed in postsecondary education.