Poverty Lab College Access Programs

Growing inequality and reduced social mobility means that children born into poverty are increasingly likely to remain poor as adults. Research has shown that education is the single most effective route out of poverty, and this is especially true as the labor market continues its decades-long shift away from manufacturing and agriculture toward new fields in the “knowledge economy.” Indeed, the difference is stark: with only a high school diploma, nearly half of all children born into poverty will remain poor as adults; with a college degree, that number falls to 17 percent.

Despite this clear remedy, youth who grow up in poverty face significant barriers to educational attainment and success in college. Low-income youth and first-generation college students often lack access to the same social, economic, and cultural resources as their wealthier peers, placing them at a distinct disadvantage in nearly every aspect of post-secondary education, including limited academic readiness for college level coursework, inadequate social and emotional readiness for college, difficulty navigating the college application and selection process, and financial difficulty paying for college.

The Poverty Lab is collaborating with public officials, educators, service providers, and academics to rigorously test and evaluate a portfolio of programs to overcome these challenges. In doing so, the Poverty Lab aims to bolster the quantity and quality of effective interventions that mitigate the effects of poverty on students’ educational outcomes and enhance the prospects of upward social mobility.


Among Chicago Public School (CPS) graduates eligible for admission to a selective or very selective college, 15 percent never even enrolled in a two-year or four-year institution. OneGoal works closely with public schools in low-income communities to bridge this gap between high school and college. The program empowers teachers with a robust curriculum, technology, and coaching resources for students starting in the junior year of high school. OneGoal provides counseling to increase student GPAs and standardized test scores, supports students throughout the college application and enrollment process, and establishes academic, financial, and social foundations to help students navigate challenges through the first year of college. As OneGoal expands its program to serve 100-125 students per school across four schools, the Poverty Lab will conduct a quasi-experimental evaluation and a related randomized controlled trial (RCT) in the 2017-2018 school year to measure the true impact of the program. If successful, this new model could help OneGoal reach students from a broader set of academic backgrounds and enable the organization to operate at a much larger scale.

One Million Degrees

Community colleges enroll nearly half of all post-secondary students in the U.S., reflecting a significant number of low-income or first generation college students. Yet, only one in four community college students graduates within three years. In Chicago, the situation is more urgent still, with a three-year community college graduation rate at just 13%. One Million Degrees (OMD) aims to close this completion gap by addressing the challenges that bar low-income students from graduating: a lack of economic, social, and cultural capital resulting in poor advising, financial insecurity, and difficulty navigating the complex college environment. OMD implements a comprehensive approach that supports community college students financially, academically, personally, and professionally through skill-building workshops, scholarships, and coaching. OMD will expand its program within the City Colleges of Chicago from 440 students to 1,000 students by the 2018-19 academic year. The Poverty Lab will conduct a randomized controlled trial to measure the causal impact of OMD’s program on degree attainment from community college, future educational attainment, and employment. Evidence of effective strategies and programming holds the promise to inform the work of post-secondary institutions, such as the City Colleges of Chicago and other community college systems throughout the U.S., in their development of student support systems

Genesys Works

Unequal access to postsecondary and employment opportunities is particularly stark in urban areas like Chicago, where it is estimated that only 18 percent of ninth graders in Chicago Public Schools will obtain a four-year college degree within 10 years of starting high school. Genesys Works aims to reduce this disparity by targeting low-income and first generation college students with an innovative program that uses work experience and training as a powerful driver of educational success. The program begins with an eight-week workforce training program during the summer before students’ senior year of high school, followed by a year-long paid internship in information technology or accounting, a weekly college access class, and ongoing support throughout college as part of the Alumni Program. The Poverty Lab and the Education Lab will jointly conduct a randomized controlled trial to evaluate how and to what extent Genesys Works addresses inequities in college access and professional opportunities.

Star Scholars

The Star Scholars program provides full-tuition scholarship to City Colleges for Chicago Public Schools graduates who earn an average GPA of at least 3.0 and a 17 or higher on the Math and English sections of the ACT. Star Scholars must also enroll in one of City College’s pathways programs, part of the Guided Pathways to Success initiative designed to strengthen the connection between industry-specific curricula and labor market demands. The Poverty Lab is partnering with City Colleges, CPS, and the Mayor’s Office to analyze City Colleges’ data to compare the outcomes of Star Scholars to similar students who do not participate in the program. This rigorous evaluation will shed light on whether the Star Scholars program is helping students as intended and for whom the program can be most successful. .

Predicting the Likelihood of College Graduation

At the high school level, early warning data systems have helped schools successfully identify ninth graders who are not on-track to graduate in four years. These systems have been instrumental in improving high school graduation rates in CPS and other urban districts around the country. To test this model in postsecondary contexts, The Poverty Lab is partnering with OneGoal to apply innovative tools from the field of machine learning to administrative data from Chicago Public Schools and the National Student Clearinghouse. By developing a tool that predicts whether or not a student is on- or off track to graduate from college based on a number of factors at different points in high school and through freshman year of college, we aim to support college access providers and institutes in higher education in targeting available resources and support systems to the students who need them the most.