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New Study Says Poverty is Bad for the Brain


I AM 1 DEGREE: 10,000 Degrees students look out over the University of San Francisco campus during their week-long enrollment in our Summer Intensive.

A new study in the journal Science puts data behind some of the work that 10,000 Degrees does. Researchers from Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Warwick at Coventry, and University of British Columbia at Vancouver have concluded that yes, no matter how smart you are, poverty is a drain on the brain.

“Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.  The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity.  The findings, in other words, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor.”

The study concludes that poverty has the same cognitive impact as losing a full night’s sleep or a 13 point drop in IQ.

These findings are one of the key reasons 10,000 Degrees exists.  We serve 100% low income students in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We inspire and deliver the dream of a college degree.

If you are born in the lower income quartile in America you have an 8% chance of attaining a college degree by age 24 vs. an 82% chance if you are from a high-income family.  Eighty-four percent of our students entering a 4-year college will earn their degree (beating the national average of 54% for all income levels entering college).  How do we do it?  We have already implemented many of the practices recommended in the study.

Applying to and paying for college in America requires planning prompts, meeting deadlines, filling out long forms, in-person interviews and tests — all activities recognized by the study as “cognitive taxes” that, like monetary taxes, should not be imposed on poor people.

We support our students by keeping them on track with deadlines, providing practice interviews and test prep.  Additionally, 10,000 Degrees has introduced mindfulness training to help our students reduce distractions and maintain a clear focus on the present moment.  We also pair many of our students with volunteer mentors — adults who can mirror a society of opportunity and freedom rather than a life of lowered expectations.

While we cannot create environments like those of Scandinavia where access to higher education has no relation to income, as part of our multi-faceted approach to college success we bring hundreds of our students together for a week-long intensive experience (pictured above).  They live together in dormitories and bond as a social unit.  After this experience, individuals no longer feels like they are tackling the challenge of college alone but that they have a peer group that can, and will, overcome.