NEWTON — It was a given in high school that Vanessa Atocha would go to one of the best colleges she could get into — just like the majority of students in her classes at Newton North High School. But once there, Atocha, the daughter of a housekeeper who spoke little English, encountered challenges most of her classmates could not even fathom.
From the moment she arrived at Pennsylvania State University in 2010, Atocha struggled to pay her bills, even with the help of financial aid and loans. At first, Atocha forged friendships with classmates in order to borrow textbooks. By her second semester, she chose her classes more strategically — based on whether she could eke out money for the book.
Finally, overwhelmed by debt and financial notices on her dorm room door, she dropped out during her sophomore year and returned home to Newton.
“I felt limited every day I was at Penn State,” she said. “I was constantly thinking of money.”
Low-income students such as Atocha are only half as likely to graduate from college as their more affluent peers even when they attended top suburban high schools, according to first-of-its-kind state education data analyzed by the Globe. The data, which track college graduation rates for each public high school for the class of 2010, paint a picture of painfully unequal opportunity across Massachusetts, in which poorer students typically face a grave disadvantage no matter how exalted their high school.
The most startling gaps in college attainment exist inside individual schools — a trend that is pronounced in Boston’s suburbs. In Atocha’s graduating class at Newton North, 39 percent of low-income graduates earned college degrees within six years, compared to 70 percent of more affluent peers. And at Newton South, Milton High School, and Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, the gaps between affluent and low-income students equaled or exceeded Newton North’s.
These disparities, which surprised even some seasoned educators, have complicated and varied roots, including escalating college costs and insufficient academic preparation. Several recent alumni say they underscore the need for more extensive college advising, particularly on finances, for low-income students attending suburban high schools that have historically been dominated by middle- and upper-income families.
The unequal outcomes should be seen as intolerable and a call to action, said Paul Reville, a former state education secretary and director of the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
“America is built on the myth that we are an equal opportunity society, but when you see numbers like this, it tells a different story,” he said.
The gaps, he added, could be a sign that many suburban schools lack urgency in addressing wide-ranging inequalities among their students. “The suburbs,” he noted, “have more resources but less experience in handling the challenges of low-income students.”
Racial gaps are also starkly evident in the new data, including within individual suburban schools, as white and Asian students graduate from college at much higher rates than black and Latino students — even at some schools with no income gaps. “These are middle-class black kids being affected, too,” said Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison and an authority on race and education.
Statewide, 53 percent of 65,000 graduates in 2010 earned a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, or a professional certificate within six years. At some schools with predominantly middle- and upper-income students, such as Needham High School, more than 80 percent of students earned college degrees. Meanwhile, at others with overwhelmingly low-income student bodies, fewer than 20 percent did. English High in Boston posted the lowest rate among traditional schools in Massachusetts, just 18 percent.
How well suburban schools serve low-income students rarely gets attention in Massachusetts, where education leaders for decades have focused on underperforming urban school systems.
But the new data make it clear that suburban schools also deserve scrutiny.
Graduates were considered low-income if they received free or reduced-price lunches while in high school. They account for a small portion of their classes at many suburban high schools, typically between 5 or 10 percent.
Shoring up counseling and other supports for low-income and minority populations in several suburban communities, including Newton, has been a priority in recent years, said Henry Turner, Newton North’s principal for the last three years. “Since 2010, both Newton North and South [high schools] have done so much.”
Yet, there is probably “not as much [discussion] as there could be” with lower-income families about affording college, said Dan Rubin, director of guidance at Newton South High School. He added that counselors walk a fine line counseling students on the most cost-effective path to a four-year degree. They risk “under-matching” students, steering them away from top colleges where they could thrive academically.
In Newton, low-income graduates mostly felt academically prepared but said they felt the lack of guidance in the basics of financial existence after high school, such as keeping up with college expenses or finding solid, more affordable college options. That information is far less vital for wealthier students.
Swardiq Mayanja, a 2012 Newton North graduate, said while his overall academic experience was positive, the school could have done more to help low-income students with college planning.
Mayanja’s family emigrated when he was 6, moving from South Africa to Massachusetts in search of better educational opportunities. His father drove a taxi and his mother was a nursing assistant; neither had firsthand knowledge of American colleges, or money to spare. Mayanja said he received little guidance from teachers or counselors at Newton North about paying for college.
“It was me Googling [stuff], and it was hard,” he said. Eventually, Mayanja realized that he couldn’t afford any of the eight or so universities he’d been admitted to.
A solid student with a 3.5 GPA, Mayanja finished his senior year in 2012 unsure where, or whether, he would go to college.
Yet, it seemed as if “where are you going to college?” was the only question he heard that last semester. Few of his white classmates appeared worried about paying for college. It was the first time Mayanja felt like a racial and socioeconomic outsider in Newton schools.
“Race never came up as much as at the end of my senior year,” he said. “It was the one time I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not supposed to be in this place right here right now.’ ”
The summer after his graduation, Mayanja discovered an option he said his high school counselors did not tell him about: community college. He enrolled at MassBay Community College and lived at home. He financed tuition largely through jobs at Papa Gino’s and the YMCA, and as a parking valet. Now 25, Mayanja earned his associate’s degree in nursing in 2016 and works full time as a nurse.
Still, Mayanja wishes the college advising in Newton hadn’t been so focused on the needs and priorities of white, middle- and upper-income students. “We did not talk about money enough, and the second you graduate from high school, money rules your life,” he said.
Huge gulfs in college graduation rates between low-income graduates and their more affluent peers also persisted inside many urban high schools, such as those in Haverhill and New Bedford.
But some of the biggest outliers were Boston’s highly coveted exam schools, where admission hinges on scores from an entrance test and grades. Low-income graduates from Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science were just as likely, for the most part, to earn a college degrees as wealthier classmates.
Instead, the big divides over college success at those schools ran along racial lines. At Latin School, for instance, 84 percent of Asian graduates and 79 percent of white graduates earned a college degree compared to 72 percent of Latino graduates and 59 percent of black graduates.
These disparities are likely due to a variety of reasons, said Charles Grandson, chief equity and strategy officer for the Boston schools. Black and Latino graduates may feel racially isolated on largely white college campuses, he said. And they also may be the first in their families to attend college, so they have fewer social resources and insights into navigating higher education institutions.
“When you look at the economic status of students and you layer in race and ethnicity, you often see further challenges and adversity that impacts their high school and college experiences,” said Grandson.
But Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said BLS itself has to do more to support students of color.
“Black and Latinx students experience racial isolation because the school does not even come close to reflecting the rich diversity of our city,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. “The school’s academic and college support structure is simply not built around the lives and experiences of low-income black and Latinx students.”
Overall, nearly 38 percent of the 3,400 Boston public school graduates in 2010 eventually earned college degrees — putting the district ahead of such urban districts as Springfield, Lawrence, Worcester, Fall River, and Holyoke. But that number is skewed by the strong overall results from the exam schools.
Boston is pursuing a number of strategies to improve students’ college prospects, such as developing career-training programs, expanding opportunities to take college courses while in high school, and connecting graduates with mentors of similar backgrounds to help guide them, Grandson said.
Most of the independently run charter schools in Boston — all of which make college completion a defining goal — performed above the system average.
At Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Hyde Park, 55 percent of graduates earned college degrees. The school has invested heavily in tracking alumni as they progress — or falter — in college. They use text messages to alert graduates about deadlines for financial aid, summer internships, jobs, and the like. The hope is that the steady flow of communication will also make students more apt to reach out if they encounter problems.
“There are no small obstacles,” said Doreen Kelly-Carney, co-director of college placement at the school. “If a kid doesn’t go to orientation or doesn’t file a certain document, everything can come to a screeching halt.”
Graduates from Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester, however, struggled. Although all graduates received offers from colleges, just 27 percent earned degrees.
Thabiti Brown, Codman’s head of school, said 2010 was an outlier and noted the school hit a high water mark of 62 percent in 2012. “We want to be at 100 percent and are working our tails off to get as close as we can,” Brown said.
Overall, the gaps in college attainment underscore how even the best in high school education cannot always overcome the effects of poverty, racism, and discrimination, local educators said.
“Whether or not you go to a suburban school, that does not . . . change the resources in your home,” said Kandice Sumner, an English teacher at Newton South who also worked in Boston Public Schools for a decade. “It doesn’t change whether you can afford to go to a four-year school. Four years of high school cannot undo 50 years of generational baggage.”
The solutions to supporting low-income students, whose numbers have surged in higher education institutions across the country, are many and complex regardless of where students attended high school.
And higher education institutions have a key role, said Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago. Massachusetts, he said, is taking steps to make state-run schools more affordable and welcoming, particularly to students who are first in their families to attend college, such as offering more financial aid and making it easier for students to transfer credits among state institutions so they don’t need to retake courses.
“It’s a realization that these students who are coming to us are leading complicated lives and have a lot of pressure to succeed,” he said.
Several suburban schools districts say they, too, are trying harder. In the last 10 years, Boston-area districts including Newton, Brookline, and others have increased academic and advising support for their minority populations.
Newton North, for instance, has created a program called Transitioning Together for students who are the first in their families to go to college (Newton South has a similar effort). In addition to ramped-up college advising, including guidance on how to cope with costs, Transitioning Together has a designated counselor who keeps in touch with alumni, reminding them to fill out financial aid forms and hosting an annual alumni breakfast.
Niko Severino, a 2018 graduate of Newton North, said his program mentor worked relentlessly on his behalf, helping him find colleges that provide the most need-based financial aid as well as researching outside scholarships. “By myself, I would not been able to do that,” he said. Severino wound up at Connecticut College, from which he hopes to graduate in 2022.
Neither Newton high school has a well-developed system to track and continue counseling graduates after they leave for college.
“I will be the first to acknowledge that the emphasis is on college access and supporting kids through the intricacies of admissions,” said Rubin, the guidance director at Newton South. “We have not branched out to do any tracking on college persistence.”
Sometimes the conversations can be difficult because staff don’t necessarily know which students come from low-income backgrounds, and hesitate to make assumptions. Many students in Metco, a voluntary integration program that sends Boston students to more than 30 suburban districts, for example, have had “peers or adults who make the assumption that because they are a Boston student, they are a low-income family,” Rubin said, which always isn’t the case.
“There are so many trip wires that sometimes these conversations don’t happen as transparently as they ought to,” he said.
There are limitations on what high schools alone can do, added Joel Stembridge, principal of Newton South.
“There is this theme of public schools trying to do everything now — trying to be social workers and doctors’ offices,” among other things, he said. “I do worry about the capacity of that.”
As the schools assess how much they can do, Vanessa Atocha, the student who struggled at Penn State, has taken things into her own hands, drawing on her own hard experience to advise her younger sister, who graduated from Newton North last spring.
Atocha’s sister started at the University of Massachusetts Amherst this fall, partly because of Atocha’s encouragement to stay closer to home and to keep the overall price tag lower. “I wish someone had pushed me to stay in state,” the 27-year-old said.
After returning home from Penn State, Atocha enrolled at MassBay Community College, but her confidence had been shaken and it didn’t work out. She eventually got a job as a technician in an ophthalmologist’s office, and now has a secure and rewarding job at Tufts Medical Center. But she sometimes covets the college education she never got.
“I wish I could go back to school,” she said. “These [physician] residents that I’m helping here, I always think, ‘I could be the resident. I could be the doctor.’ It will always be in the back of my head.”
Partial funding for this initiative is provided by the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based foundation that has made student success in high school and beyond a top priority. The foundation has no editorial input on Globe coverage.