Making College Work

Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students

Harry J. Holzer, Sandy Baum
Release Date: August 29, 2017

Practical solutions for improving higher education opportunities for disadvantaged students

Too many disadvantaged college students in America do not complete their coursework with any college credential, while others earn degrees or certificates with little labor market value. Large numbers of these students also struggle to pay for college, and some incur debts that they have difficulty repaying. The authors provide a new review of the causes of these problems and promising policy solutions.

These circumstances stem both from problems on the individual side, such as weak academic preparation and financial pressures, and from institutional failures. Low-income students disproportionately attend schools that are underfunded and have weak performance incentives, contributing to unsatisfactory outcomes for many students.

Some solutions, including better financial aid or academic supports, target individual students. Other solutions, such as stronger linkages between coursework and the labor market and more structured paths through the curriculum, aim at institutional reforms. All students, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, also need better and varied pathways both to college and directly to the job market, beginning in high school. We can improve college outcomes, but must also acknowledge that we must make hard choices and face difficult tradeoffs in the process.

While no single policy is guaranteed to greatly improve college and career outcomes, implementing a number of evidence-based policies and programs together has the potential to improve these outcomes substantially.

Praise for Making College Work

Making College Work makes a compelling argument about the existing outcome gaps for disadvantaged students and exposes the reader to policies and practices that could help at least narrow these gaps. The book is an appealing combination of rigor and readability.
Education Review


Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students provides a useful and insightful review and analysis of the causes of poor college outcomes for low-income and minority youth and of the policies designed to improve those outcomes. Written by Harry J. Holzer and Sandy Baum, this new book contributes innovative approaches and techniques suited to advocates, mentors, and teachers who can be change-makers with regard to improving college graduation rates for low-income students. The authors provide a comprehensive review of programs that work and, importantly, speak to needed policies that have potential for reshaping the postsecondary landscape of low-income young people.
—Janet Forbush, The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring


How can America get a better return on its multimillion-dollar investment in higher education? By ensuring that college graduation rates for low-income students improve dramatically. With a compassionate purpose but a hard-nosed parsing of current research, the authors have written a comprehensive and persuasive book about how we might achieve this goal. Guided by their nuanced review of the data on programs that work, they propose a set of practical policies that could reshape the American postsecondary landscape. Making College Work gives invaluable guidance to the field in a clear and highly readable book.
—Gail Mellow, President, LaGuardia Community College

A useful and wide-ranging review and analysis of the causes of poor college outcomes for low-income and minority students and of the policies designed to improve those outcomes. Holzer and Baum emphasize that successful reform will require a balanced and diverse set of comprehensive elements. Making College Work makes an important and compelling contribution to the growing movement to improve college outcomes.
—Thomas Bailey, George and Abby O’Neill Professor of Economics and Education, and Director, Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University

This book is a data-rich, cogently presented analysis of what is generally considered the most stubborn and important challenge facing higher education—improving on ongoing disparities in educational attainment along socioeconomic and racial/ethnic lines. After diagnosing the sources of this condition, the authors suggest realistic interventions that postsecondary institutions, particularly community colleges, can undertake to remedy it. Making College Work is a timely volume that will be of tremendous utility to educators and policymakers alike. It could ultimately help create a stronger American middle class.
—David Baime, Senior Vice President, Government Relations and Policy Analysis, American Association of Community Colleges


Harry J. Holzer is a Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University, an Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings. He is also a former Chief Economist at the US Department of Labor.

Sandy Baum is a higher education economist and a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute. She has written extensively on college access, college financing, financial aid, and student debt.

Media Coverage

FutureEd 20/10/2017

Making College Work: Nudging Student Behavior

badcredit.org 28/09/2020

Book Address Disadvantaged Students and Higher Ed