Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College

Arthur Levine and Jana Nidiffer

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996

204 pages, $27.95

A Book Review by Susan R. Jones, Ph.D.

As the title of this new book from noted educator and author Arthur Levine and colleague Jana Nidiffer suggests, Beating the Odds explores the success stories of 24 students who overcame obstacles to get to college. Their stories defy the statistics which indicate that this road to success has only become longer and more difficult as college attendance rates mirror the chasm between rich and poor in U.S. society. Levine and Nidiffer's ability to tell the stories of their participants in the context of the harsh realities of poverty, national legislation, and access to higher education by the poor combine to offer a compelling and provocative examination of a group of students seldom studied in higher education.

Inspired by their own earlier identifications as first-generation, poor college students and troubled by national statistics which document that the poor are much less likely to attend college and eight times less likely to graduate than the rest of the population (Mortenson & Wu as cited in Levine & Nidiffer, 1996), Levine and Nidiffer undertook this study of first-generation, poor students "to try to understand the reasons for their success" (p. 59). The group of 24 consisted of 12 students attending a highly selective university and 12 students attending a community college. Poor, for the purposes of this study, was defined as "receiving full financial aid" (p. 60). The students were diverse by geographic region, age, race-ethnicity, and divided equally by gender. What they had in common was their social class standing and evidence that they had "beaten the odds" in order to find their way to college.

Written in an engaging style with a tight organization, this book is presented in three sections, each one addressing the notion of the odds of a poor person attending college. Section one, "Weighing the Odds," includes two chapters. The first addresses the pernicious hold of poverty on those trapped in its clutches. The metaphor of war is invoked to describe the neighborhoods of the poor as "war zones," the protective safety institutions such as the family as "bunkers," and the road out of poverty as "escape routes." The second chapter presents the statistics of poverty and the national higher education policies directed toward the poor. By tracing higher education's response to providing access to this group of students, Levine and Nidiffer conclude that "Throughout collegiate history in this country, the job of educating the poor has been the lot of the newest and least prestigious institutions" (p. 36).

Section two, "Beating the Odds," contains three chapters which focus entirely on the study conducted by Levine and Nidiffer. We catch a glimpse of the backgrounds of these students, the circumstances of their growing up years, their troubles as young adults, and the significant individuals in their lives. These chapters illuminate the lives of all 24 success stories while also describing the differences in backgrounds and college experiences between those who attended the highly selective institution and those who attended the community college. The attentive reader will note some discrepancies between demographic information provided and the participant profiles such as one more woman profiled than the number presented statistically.

Section three, "Improving the Odds," focuses on ingredients for success including the influence of mentors, particular lessons gleaned from this study, and descriptions of exemplary intervention programs. The chapter on mentoring reflects the results of interviews with nine of the mentors for the students in the study and included the characteristics they shared in common. Among those collectively held qualities are a belief in the value of hard work, an assumption that education is central to success, and an ability to cross the borders into the world of the poor. The chapter on specific lessons learned provides a brief description of seven specific strategies which would improve the odds for poor students including starting early, focusing intensely on the individual, and creating enrichment experiences. And the last chapter offers three initiatives which have worked in the past: special colleges for the poor, federal financial aid programs, and intervention programs. It concludes with a description of what Levine and Nidiffer consider an exemplary program which incorporates many of the findings of their study, the "I Have a Dream" program.

Through in-depth and open-ended interviews with each of the students, Levine and Nidiffer unearthed the central story of these students' lives which made college attendance a reality. They conclude that "the most important lesson of this book is that many, many more poor people can go to college than are currently attending. Race, gender, religion, and birthplace need not be barriers. In the simplest terms, the recipe for getting to college is mentorship-one arm around one child; one mentor with one poor person" (p. 139). Their common story was of the presence of an individual who encouraged attendance, who valued education, who instilled faith and confidence, and who navigated the way to college. Levine and Nidiffer noted that in most cases those mentors who improved the odds identified the students rather than the students choosing them.

The strengths of Beating the Odds are many. The shortcomings of the book are related to the depth of analysis of poverty and social class. The stories told by each student provide poignant examples of the influence of mentors, yet the life experiences of the two groups are dramatically different. I found the comparisons between those primarily younger students attending a highly selective institution and those older students attending the community college to be confounding. Their issues, worries, and challenges were dramatically different. To be an older adult and poor is an entirely different life experience than to have grown up poor, now attending a highly selective institution, and well on the way to middle class stature. Such a reality calls for a broader analysis of the findings in the context of race-ethnicity, class, age, gender, and geographic region. Aside from securing a diverse sample, this level of analysis is absent from the book and as a result, obscures structural issues in understanding poverty and access to higher education. In another study, Fine (1991) concluded, "Wealth provides a substantially more efficient educational buffer for whites than for students of color" (p. 22). Statistics too would suggest that access to higher education cannot be understood as an individual phenomenon, but only as inexorably linked to race-ethnicity, class, age, and gender. Amott and Matthaei (1991) wrote "there are limits to class analysis if it is kept separate from race-ethnicity and gender" (p. 23). Yet, it is the individual story which this study reveals so eloquently and in such a compelling style.

While it is the intention of this book to illuminate the individual success stories and to identify the common ingredient of mentoring to all the students, such a perspective may exacerbate long held notions that it is individual effort alone which produces success. All it takes is "one arm around" to assure that the poor get to college. Even the language of "the poor" is a curious choice as it too emphasizes the individual over the more commonly used vocabulary of social class. There is a passiveness inherent in an individual interpretation and one could finish this book concluding, that to be successful, students simply must wait to be chosen by a mentor.

Levine and Nidiffer have told an important story in portraying the courageous lives of 24 students who have beaten the odds, but I wanted them to say more. I was intrigued by the description of the younger students attending the selective institution as "hyphenated people" (p. 93). And I was in awe of the older students attending the community college who had rallied in the face of drug and alcohol addictions, abusive relationships, and unemployment. However, the picture seemed too "pretty" as the book amplified the notion of poor students moving through their environments to beat the odds without enough attention to the loss and cost which must have been paid as part of this transition. Suggesting a cultural interpretation of such a transition London (1992) wrote, "It is only when we see that negotiating cultural obstacles involves not just gain but loss-most of all the loss of a familiar past, including a past self-that we can begin to understand the attendant periods of confusion, conflict, isolation, and even anguish reported by first-generation students" (p. 10).

Beating the Odds makes an important contribution to the literature of higher education. Through an engaging style and thoughtful presentation Levine and Nidiffer tell the stories of students whose voices have traditionally not been heard. From their conversations with these students and their analysis, Levine and Nidiffer have also provided the reader with specific strategies for change as well as an historical context from which to understand the ongoing dilemma of improving the odds for poor students to get to college. And along the way, the authors provide moving testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.


Amott, T. L., & Matthaei, J. A. (1991). Race, gender and work: A multicultural economic history of women in the United States. Boston: South End Press.

Fine, M. (1991). Framing dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban public high school. Albany: State University of New York Press.

London, H. B. (1992). Transformations: Cultural challenges faced by first-generation students. In L. S. Zwerling & H. B. London (Eds.), First-Generation students: Confronting the cultural issues (pp. 5-11). New Directions for Community Colleges, No. 80. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Susan is a 1981 graduate of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at The University of Vermont. She recently earned her Ph.D. in College Student Personnel from The University of Maryland, College Park. Susan is currently the Assistant Director for Campus Programs and the Stamp Student Union at The University of Maryland, College Park.