Mapping the Opportunity Gap: the Importance of Location in Serving Students

Monday, August 31, 2015
By Devora Shamah

Each community is unique and it is important that we understand these nuances across our network. Gateway to College National Network currently works with 41 partners in 21 states. The data we regularly collect provide basic demographic characteristics of the student population at each program. These data show how gender, ethnicity, and age ratios differ at each program. We know how far students have to go to reach their high school diploma, and their average GPA before entering the program. As we explored other ways to understand the communities that GtC programs serve, we looked to publically available data as a way to learn more. 

With the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York we were able to undertake a new research project last summer. Using census data, we attached community characteristics to available zip code information. We used maps to display this information, which provided a visual representation of how programs differ. These maps illustrate not only how community resources differ, but how the size of the geographic region each program serves is different. Some programs serve students who live close, while other programs serve students coming from near and far. Some programs serve many school districts, adding a layer of complexity in making sure high school requirements are met and transportation is not an obstacle for students. 

We examined income, education levels in communities, and the intersections of race and poverty around the network. We learned that 8 GtC programs have 50% or more students living in one of the poorest zip codes in the United States. While the students themselves may not come from families that are living below the poverty line, communities with concentrated poverty have fewer resources and present different challenges to young people than communities where more families have resources[1]. This information is useful to allow programs to prioritize community partnerships and advocate for the resources students need.

The analysis highlighted programs serving communities with resources. For example, 6 programs are in communities where education attainment is higher than the national average. For these programs, these data highlight community resources that can be leveraged for students. Communities with more adults who have successfully navigated college provide a large pool of mentors to assist students navigating the system as well as examples of what opportunities come with college degrees and credentials. Again, the students may or may not come from families that reflect the average, but their community likely has more resources. 


This analysis reminded us of how poverty and race intersect in our country. Twenty-eight percent of GtC students live in a zip code where the majority of the population identifies as people of color. Recent events in our country demonstrate that segregated communities often experience strict policing and unfair lending practices, along with other legacies of racial segregation. Sixty percent of GtC students living in communities that are home to a majority of people of color live in communities where the poverty rate is above 20%, serving as another illustration of how often poverty and race go hand in hand in our country. 

GtC students have high aspirations for their education, career, and role in our communities. Regardless of the neighborhood surrounding the college campus GtC students attend, it is important to understand what neighborhoods students are coming from and traveling through to get there. Gateway to College students are successful in part due to the holistic support that staff members provide to support students as they navigate in and out of school challenges. Our mapping work provides network staff with more tools to understand how communities are unique and provides a new lens on how to leverage community resources to deliver more opportunities for students as they reengage with their education. Our programs work hard to honor the strengths and experiences each student brings to Gateway. Attention to collecting and interpreting data assists staff and students to better negotiate the complexity of aspiring higher, while honoring the work and struggles of their families and neighbors. 

 The full report is available here

[1] Charles, C. Z. (2003). The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation. Annual Review of Sociology, 29(1), 167–207.

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