The challenge of pursuing higher education for low-income, minority students in Cambridge, MA

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As the school year comes to an end, many high school seniors are getting excited about finding out what college they are headed to, and some are probably making plans for the big move. Boston is home to some of the most well-known universities in the country, and, with over 46%[1] of the adults holding a college degree, is one of the most educated cities in the United States (national average: 30.3%[2]).

There are many factors influencing one’s decision to pursue higher education. One of the most debated is the financial burden that may result from such a choice. Guidance related to college selection and financial planning is especially critical for low-income students, many of whom are young men and women of color. Their college and post-college experience may depend entirely on the cost of the institution, and the amount and type of financial aid received.

The Institute for Community Health (ICH) is the evaluation partner of Cambridge’s College Success Initiative (CSI), aimed at supporting low-income and first-generation students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS), the local Cambridge high school, as well as students working with other local organizations. Their goal is for these students to access and complete post-secondary programs within 6 years at a rate equal to their non-low-income peers.

Data show the need for CSI’s work. In Cambridge, 82% of white residents aged 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher title. In the same city, less than 50% of residents of color have a college degree[3]. This disparity is both a matter of high school retention, as well as college completion. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), in 2017, on average, the dropout rate among white CRLS students[4] was 2% (state average[5]: 3%), compared to 5% for their non-white counterpart (state average: 8%). Among 2009 graduates from CRLS, 50% of white students completed a credential within 6 years, compared with 42% of Hispanic students and 31% of Black or African American students. There was also a disparity by income; low-income students were less likely to complete college within 6 years than their higher-income peers (31% vs. 51%)[6].

CSI brings together stakeholders from CRLS, community-based organizations, and local higher-education institutions to work together to remove barriers for students’ achievements. Specifically, around college planning and persistence, CSI has created a partnership between CRLS and Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) that allows CRLS students to take college-level classes within the high school setting. This positions them to succeed in college, by giving them the opportunity to experience a college course and to earn college credits if they choose to matriculate into BHCC.

While at BHCC or UMass Boston, students can decide to work together with a Success Coach, who guides them through the matriculation and financial aid processes, and helps them to understand how to register for classes and learn about available resources. Coaches also provide emotional support and encouragement.
Recently, ICH conducted qualitative interviews with 11 students who are working with a coach, and we’d like to share a couple of comments to give you a glimpse of their experiences.

“I am very thankful for this program. I look back… I probably wouldn’t be in college now. [My coach] helps me with everything. She has done a lot. I feel so thankful for the program.”


“When I was having problems balancing school and work, [my coach] used to say: ‘Stick with it. You can do it!’ It makes you confident (…) That makes me work even harder to not disappoint her.”

On a final note, we would like to stress that we acknowledge that a student’s socio-economic status is a characteristic that does not exist in a vacuum, but more often than not intersects with race, country of origin, family’s education level, and many other dimensions of one’s life. Exploring how all these characteristics co-exist and function is out of this blog post’s scope, but stay tuned and who knows…ICH may tell you more in the future!

[1] 2012-2016 ACS estimates, found at:

[2] 2012-2016 ACS estimates, found at:

[3] 2012-2016 ACS estimates, found at: Excludes ‘some other races’, ‘two or more races’,



[6] MA Department of Education, District Analysis Review Tool (DART)

Sharon Touw, MPH

Research and Evaluation Project Manager/Epidemiologist

Martina Todaro, MA

Research Associate