The Need for Greater Focus on Students in the Academic Middle

August 20, 2019

This is the first of a 4-part blog series focused on the interconnected elements that impact students who fall within the academic middle of their peers.

In our society, there is a long-held belief that education is the key to greater economic mobility and success. Although higher education is the best path toward upward economic mobility, family income continues to be the greatest predictor of academic achievement and future earnings. A recent Georgetown University study confirmed the highest achieving group of low-income high school students are less likely to complete college and earn above average wages than the lowest achieving group of high-income students, leading the study’s author to posit, “to succeed in America, it’s better to be born rich than smart.”

Many high-achieving, low-income students who struggle to reach their potential do so because of the barriers they face both inside and outside of school. At the other end of the academic spectrum, we also can point to the much needed emphasis on the lowest performing group, who are at-risk of dropping out of high school, which is strongly correlated with so many detrimental life outcomes. While both of these groups receive the lion’s share of attention and resources devoted to addressing the impact of poverty on low-income students, those students who do not fall at either end of the spectrum are often lost in the discussion. Students who fall within the academic middle of their peers can also succeed in school and the workforce with the appropriate support.

The academic middle is comprised of students whose GPA range between 2.3 -3.1. They are on the cusp of college eligibility but unlikely to further their education without additional support. Students in the academic middle from low-income communities are often left to their own devices due to the primary focus of our education system on supporting either high achieving or low achieving students. With little guidance and access to opportunities, they may not be able to reach their full potential alone. Economist Lawrence Mishel notes poverty creates obstacles such as frequently changing schools due to poor housing, having little help with homework, and fewer role models of success. These students require the individual, one-to-one environment to unlock their potential and help put them on a path of upward economic mobility. 

CPE has more than 25 years of experience mentoring low-income students toward college and career success, and in recent years has begun to focus exclusively on this large but mostly undefined sub-group of academic middle students. It is CPE’s belief that these students have untapped potential, and with the social networks to guide them in becoming self-actualized, resilient leaders, they have a better chance of overcoming the challenges they face daily.

Over the next few blogs, CPE will explore some of the characteristics of the academic middle, how these students can be best supported, and how CPE’s program addresses the unmet needs of this important group of students.