Graduates make their way to Alfond arena for the 150th anniversary year graduation at the University of Maine in Orono this spring. Credit: Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Does growing up in a low-income household hurt your chance to get a college degree? This new study says yes.

Researchers tracked a group of 15,000 high school sophomores starting in 2002 to see how well they did in class, if they went on to college, their work history and their graduation rate after 13 years.

Their results show that the income of students’ families influences not just whether students will attend college but whether they will graduate.

Let’s digest the numbers.

According to the survey, more than 70 percent of all high school students targeted had aspirations of completing a bachelor’s degree. Of the students from the highest income families, 87 percent of students planned to earn a bachelor’s degree, while a sizeable 27 percent expected to go on for an advanced degree.

Comparatively, 58 percent of students in the lowest income group had plans to achieve their bachelor’s degree, and 12 percent desired to attend graduate school.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

As you can see from the graph above, a far smaller percentage of students from low-income families attained their bachelor’s degree. Only 14 percent of the less-advantaged students — one out of four who wanted to — actually went on to earn their bachelor’s. Of the more affluent students, 60 percent — almost two thirds who wanted to — did complete their undergraduate degree.

Is it that low-income students had academic aspirations that exceeded their ability?

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

No. The infographic above dispels the myth that all you need to get a college education is to be smart. The fact is, your parent’s income matters — a lot.

Compare the students with the highest test scores. Seventy-four percent of high-achieving students from affluent families earned an undergraduate degree, while only 41 percent of high-achieving students from lower-income families were able to do so in the exact same period of time.

How about mediocre, middle-of-the-road scores earned by a more well-off student, when compared with top scores by a low-income student? Both earned degrees at the same rate: 41 percent.

However, only 5 percent of low-income students who performed worst in college graduated from college. That’s compared with 21 percent of high-income students who got the worst grades.

And a final, startling comparison: Students with high-income parents who had low scores (21 percent) were just about as likely to graduate from college as students with higher-than-average scores from low-income families (23 percent).

So what are the possible implications for Maine students?

For the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System, the question will be not just how to get low-income students into college but through it.

In 2008, 48 percent of students who entered Maine’s public universities earned a degree within six years. For community colleges, 26 percent of students earned a degree within three years, according to the Sen. George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute.

A 2010 report by ACT called “What Works in Student Retention?” narrowed down ways to help keep students in college: plenty of academic support, helping students identify what they want for their future, and involving them in a wide variety of programs and services on campus.

Another study, by the Pell Institute, found that to increase low-income students’ chance of success schools should make a concerted effort to reach out to them during their initial transition to college, when it’s riskiest they’ll drop out. Colleges should also develop systems to monitor student progress and intervene when needed. And they should provide a wide range of academic-support programs, from tutorial centers to supplemental instruction.