Should Everyone Go to College: The Challenges for Low-Income Students

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Is college worth it for students coming from low-income families and parents without a college degree? A student going to college is a new chapter in one’s life. The start of college can be a tough transition for someone who may be the first person in their family to attend a college or university.

Challenges in Pursuing College Education

In an article written by Paul Tough for the New York Times, a young adult by the name of “Vanessa” grew up with her college, career, and life goals planned out. She knew what she wanted to do with her life, and her parents always told her and her siblings “ to believe they could accomplish anything” (Tough). Vanessa’s parents were unable to go to college due to the pregnancy of Vanessa; her parents got married and started their lives with jobs to be financially stable with baby Vanessa coming into the world. They later divorced when Vanessa was almost a teenager. Vanessa did well academically, and her excellence in school allowed her to have the opportunity to attend her dream school, The University of Texas at Austin, known as U.T.

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Once Vanessa began college, she was quickly nervous about being there, and “ People had warned her that U.T. was hard. “But I thought: Oh, I got this far,” Vanessa told me. “I’m smart. I’ll be fine.” (Tough). As Vanessa began taking classes at the university, she realized it was a big change from high school; she failed her first test in a class that was needed for her major, Nursing. Failing a test was not normal for Vanessa, and she was bummed. She contacted her mother for help because she was stuck in what would be an unusual situation for her. Vanessa’s mother made comments to Vanessa regarding the decision to attend her dream school; she did not know if it was the best choice.

Academic Struggles and Graduation Rates

Vanessa did not like what her mother had to say, and she began wondering if what her mom said was right. According to Tough, many students who attend colleges from low-income families struggle harder than students who do not. Tough said, “Some don’t know how to choose the right college, so they drift into a mediocre school that produces more dropouts than graduates” (Tough). Many students go to college not understanding that it will be a big change, become overwhelmed and do not seek assistance, and some eventually drop out due to the level of stress and difficulty. Paul Tough included two trends in his article on earning a college degree. The first mentioned is, “More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years” (tough).

Many students do not earn a degree within the first four years of college, mainly due to dropping out or, overall, just not doing well in classes and getting behind by having to retake them. The second trend spoken by Tough is that graduation rates are lower for students who come from parents with low income. Students who come from these families tend to take a longer amount of time to graduate as a student coming from a high-income family.

A professor at the University of Texas at Austin named David Laude understood that some of his students would not be great in his class, as when Laude was in college, he became confused and overwhelmed just like Vanessa did, as well as some of his students.

Professor Laude told writer Paul Tough, “I was completely at a loss on how to fit in socially. And I was tremendously bad at studying. Everything was just overwhelming.” He spent most of his freshman year on the brink of dropping out” (Tough). When Laude began teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, he quickly noticed over time a range of students who were not doing well in his chemistry class and scored low on the first test. He quickly began pulling records of the students and found out the students who were not doing well were coming from low-income families, and many of their parents did not attend college.

Laude began trying to find a way to help the students instead of having his students go into the university’s remedial classes. He began a program the following semester where he invited about fifty students based on their records to his program known as TIP, shortened for the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan. “ Students who were placed in the program were just put into a smaller lecture class for his Chemistry class. Laude wanted to still cover the same information as he was teaching in his larger classes; the only difference was the background of these students.

He wanted to do the most he could to help the students with the problems he was dealing with as a college student. “ He offered TIP students two hours each week of extra instruction; he assigned them advisers who kept in close contact with them and intervened if the students ran into trouble or fell behind; he found upperclassmen to work with the TIP students one-on-one, as peer mentors” (tough). Laude began seeing changes in his students’ academic performance, and they were doing just as well as his larger lecture class students. The graduation rates and return rates increased after Laude started this program at the university.


As a student coming from a low-income family of a single mom of triplets and having parents who did not attend college, I can relate to Vanessa in many ways. The transition is very difficult and overwhelming. Professor David Laude’s realization of the reasoning behind why students were not doing well is very relatable in my case. Last semester, I was in a chemistry class of 380 people, and I did not do as well in that class as the other classes I was currently taking; although I did not fail the chemistry course, I also did not do as well as I wish I had, especially for my major, nursing, just like Vanessa.


  1. Tough, P. (2014). Who Gets to Graduate?. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from
  2. Laude, D. (n.d.). University of Texas at Austin – Department of Chemistry. Retrieved from
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  4. Perez, W., & McDonough, P. M. (2008). Understanding the college choice process of disadvantaged students. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2008(139), 43-55.
  5. Lee, J. J., & Bowen, W. G. (2016). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton University Press.
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Should Everyone Go to College: The Challenges for Low-Income Students. (2023, Aug 29). Retrieved from

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