Benefitting Underserved Communities with Higher Education

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High school principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
A group of graduates hold their diploma in the library.

What is an Underserved Community?

Members of underserved communities face barriers and disparity in accessing and using resources for reasons of race, religion, language group, or social status. Examples of underserved communities are communities of color, low-income households, the homeless population, and individuals with disabilities. Barriers for these communities could be income related, issues of mental health, lack of transportation, lack of medical insurance or assistance, or non-proficiency in the English language.

The barriers that members of these communities face are often not isolated or singular, but combine to create situations that make overcoming these circumstances seem like a pipe dream and often perpetuate socio-economic status of the family for generations. For decades, it has been known that education is key for reducing poverty.

According to “Education, Key to Overcoming Poverty,” “maintaining education will increase the employment rate and earning potential, which will ultimately impact long-term economic and family security. Education is also critical for children because it will give them more opportunity for development and growth and will point them in the direction of long-term success, which will help with breaking the poverty cycle.”

As a principal of an urban school, I have seen and experienced firsthand how difficult graduating high school can be at times for students who live in poverty. It is not uncommon for high school students to be fully responsible for earning the sole household income, without transportation, while caring for younger siblings. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are also prevalent and prove a barrier to education for students. That is not to say that these students do not strive to reach institutes of higher education for themselves and their families. Thanks to their teachers and counselors, they do understand the benefits of persevering to earn their high school diploma and continuing their education after high school.

Benefits of Earning a Degree of Higher Education

Earning a degree of higher education opens doors for graduates. According to the APLU, bachelor’s degree holders are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree and they make $1 million in additional earnings on average over their lifetime.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that the jobless rate for bachelor’s degree holders is just 2.5 percent in 2021. The APLU also states that “bachelor’s degree holders are 47 percent more likely to have health insurance provided through their job and their employers contribute 74 percent more to their health coverage.” Additionally, the incidence of poverty among bachelor’s degree holders is 3.5 times lower than it is for those who hold high school degrees.

These facts mean that the additional barriers to transportation, language learning, medical care, and mental health services can dissolve with a degree of higher education. This access is not only created for the graduate but also their family, breaking the cycle of generational poverty and generally providing access to better neighborhoods and schools, as well.

The Importance of Promoting the Benefits of Higher Education

In my positions in urban school districts with high poverty rates, I’ve often witnessed and worked alongside alumni of those schools who returned after earning degrees of higher education to mentor, coach, and lead youth from their alma mater. They recognize the importance of giving back in the name of helping other students who are in similar circumstances to those they were in at their age. It is extremely important that students see adults who can understand and relate to their struggles and have succeeded in breaking that cycle for themselves and their families. Seeing that someone similar to them has succeeded inspires and empowers students to achieve beyond the barriers that are designed to keep them in their underserved community.

Students who live in underserved communities also do not have access to many experiences outside of their neighborhood or location due to lack of transportation and funds. Without a car, public transportation limits the geographic locations those living in underserved communities can reach. Income below poverty level also means that most students will not experience family vacations or trips that provide unique opportunities for growth and learning. Compounding that barrier is the fact that those who live in underserved communities also lack access to properly funded schools, leading to another barrier of resources.

Inequitably funded schools in underserved communities most often do not have budgets that support field trips or transportation costs that can widen a student’s world. Although funds for field trips are likely not in a school budget, the burden of schools providing opportunities to visit institutes of higher education is even heavier. When families are not able to or do not recognize the importance of these trips, the responsibility becomes the school’s so that students are empowered to seek access to the potential to earn a degree of higher education. In addition, college and career readiness programming, school counselor supports, and college counselor visitation are crucial to promoting the benefits of higher education.

Lastly, while working to promote higher education, schools must also plan for and implement drop-out prevention strategies. “Students who drop out of high school or college are disproportionately low-income, particularly students of color; black and Hispanic students are 12 and 9 percent less likely than their white peers to graduate from high school in four years. These inequalities have far-reaching consequences, not just for individual kids, but for society as a whole. They hamper social mobility, exacerbate income inequality, and stifle economic growth,” (

Interventions such as credit recovery programs, flexible learning hours, blended courses, daycare for children of students, and free pantries can all assist students in staying in school to earn their high school diploma. Once that has been achieved, higher education seems much more accessible to students and families.

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