Lower Income, Higher Ed

Why are so many high-achieving low-income students dropping out of college?

Christopher Feaster began his freshman year at Michigan State with optimism and determination, but he quickly found college was very different from high school.
Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen, WAMU

College is considered one of the most important ways for young people to break the cycle of poverty. In recent years, the United States has focused on helping low-income students apply to college and receive financial aid. This, however, is only half the story. It is estimated that a very small number of these students—only one out of every four—actually graduate from college.

In this radio documentary, Kavitha Cardoza introduces listeners to Christopher Feaster—a low-income D.C. resident and academic superstar who struggles to complete college despite having a full-ride scholarship. Through Christopher’s story and the stories of other low-income college students, we learn about the real-life challenges facing these students as they struggle to stay in college and graduate. Cardoza’s story also considers potential solutions to the nation’s low-college completion rates.

The radio documentary first aired on WAMU 88.5, American University Radio in September 2015.

The project is part of “Breaking Ground,” a documentary series “dedicated to uncovering stories you won’t hear anywhere else, with a special focus on children, education and poverty.”

Listen to a Q&A with Cardoza as she talks with WAMU 88.5 “Morning Edition” host Matt McCleskey about what went into her reporting for this radio documentary.

Story Links

The Web content includes the radio documentary plus feature stories and photographs.

Part 1: A college dream deferred

Meet Christopher Feaster. Despite living in a homeless shelter and rationing food in D.C., Christopher managed to be a high-achieving student and win a full-ride scholarship to college. What happens next is emblematic of the real-life struggles that many low-income students face in the U.S.

Part 2: The first-generation college experience

Just one in four low-income students earn their bachelor’s degree. Cardoza takes a look behind the statistics to talk with students about the troubles they face.

Part 3: Supporting first-generation students

What will help low-income, first-generation students do better in college?

Part 4: Collaborating to boost graduation rates

Experts say students like Christopher Feaster need plenty of support long after they finish high school. Cardoza looks at one college-based program that has tried to do just that and explores whether these solutions can be expanded.

Kavitha Cardoza is a special correspondent with WAMU Radio, the NPR affiliate in Washington, D.C. She focuses on children, education and poverty. She is also the host of the documentary series “Breaking Ground,” which airs on public radio stations across the United States. Before joining the station in 2008, Cardoza was the Springfield bureau chief for WUIS in Illinois. She has won more than 25 awards, including a national award for investigative reporting from the Education Writers Association.