A report released January 9th by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at USM on the impact of poverty on student achievement in Maine shows a clear correlation between poverty rates and how well students perform in the classroom.
One key finding was that as poverty levels increase, student performance decreases. Although this research didn’t include student performance in college, Amy Johnson, the assistant director for the Maine Center for Education Policy and a contributor to the report, believes that the data also applies to the University of Maine System.
In another study to which Johnson contributed from September of 2013, poverty was also shown to affect the performance of college students. Of the students who were economically disadvantaged, 53 percent were characterized as “not persisting or not success[ful],” as opposed to the 40 percent who were not economically disadvantaged. According to the report, a student qualifying as “persisting or success[ful]” was defined as one who earned 24 credit hours in the first year of college with at least a 2.0 grade point average and who also returned full-time for the first semester of the second year.
There are plenty of exceptions to the findings of the report. “The fact that students were economically disadvantaged was by no means deterministic. It’s not one deciding factor that overshadows everything else in a student’s life. Poverty alone does not determine whether any student will be successful,” Johnson said.
“This was a numerical measure that does not provide much direction for next steps. While it is clear that students who are economically disadvantaged are not as successful as their peers, it does not provide a clear roadmap for solutions,” Johnson said. Johnson believes that more research needs to be done to determine what it is about poverty that leads some students to fail. Without such research she believes it is difficult to determine how best to help these students.
“USM is trying to really increase its role in making college more affordable,” said Keith DuBois, director of financial aid at USM. He acknowledged that poverty is an issue in Maine and that USM has been trying to compensate for this fact by freezing tuition and investing $4 million in financial aid programs for students.
He cited that currently, 85 percent of first-time full-time students at USM receive financial aid. He added that 42 percent of undergraduate students receive the Pell Grant, a government grant that is awarded to the students who are in most need of assistance. Dubois said the financial aid office is trying to get the most grant money to the neediest of students.
However, the financial aid office does not consider the student’s official poverty level when awarding aid. “Not that we don’t see students that exhibits signs of poverty, but the way the system is set up we don’t look at poverty. We look at financial need and family contribution,” DuBois said.
Mike Havlin, a senior economics and business major, is grateful to have his tuition covered by the GI bill due to his father’s service in the Marines. Without the pressure of needing to pay tuition he felt that he could concentrate on his education. “I was able to focus on the academics. I think if all students had that option people would be more engaged with their learning. If we want society to be the best that it can be, we should provide education for everyone,” he said.
Johnson hopes that more research will determine additional ways to help Maine students get the aid that they need. Her goal is to find the “best way to provide additional funding that will actually make a difference.”