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If We Aren't Helping the Poor Smart Kids, What Hope Is There for Others?

02/04/2015 03:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

A study from the Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania's Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy released today shows a disturbing trend: America's higher education system has growing equity gaps between low-income and affluent students. According to the study, higher income students are eight times more likely to earn a college degree than their low-income peers. Moreover, the percentage of low-income students earning a bachelor's degree by age 24 has risen just three percentage points from 6% in 1970 to 9% in 2013.

Last year, the Education Trust issued a report supported by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that found equally stunning results: 22% of students who are in the top 25% academically but from households in the bottom 25% financially never even apply to college. America's education system is creating an academic underclass - students with equal potential without equal opportunities.

Our failure to help high-ability students from low-income backgrounds fulfill their potential has significant implications for the social mobility of America's lower-income families and the strength of our economy and society as a whole. We must reverse the downward trajectory of their educational achievement not only to improve their lives but also strengthen our nation by unleashing the potential of literally millions of young people who could be making great contributions to our communities and country.

These reports should be a wakeup call for policymakers. If we aren't helping the poor smart kids, what hope is there for others?