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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Getting Low-Income Students on the College-Degree Path

By Rick Dalton — February 12, 2014 5 min read
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In January, the White House hosted more than 100 college, philanthropic, and nonprofit leaders at the College Opportunity Summit, where first lady Michelle Obama announced: “It is our mission … to take real, meaningful action that will help our young people get into college and, more importantly, actually get their degree.”

Every one of the White House guests committed to helping low-income students attain college degrees by offering scholarships, summer programs, and other support.

Whether the summit turns out to be a watershed moment remains to be seen. What’s indisputable is the urgency to act and the need for real and meaningful results. Ranked No. 1 in the world in 1980 in the proportion of citizens with college degrees, the United States had slipped to 12th by 2013. Most disturbing is the fact that the educational gap between our low-income children and their wealthier peers, as measured by high school diplomas and college degrees, has widened every year since 1980.

At the Opportunity Summit, both President and Mrs. Obama made clear that having a college diploma has never been more important.

They couldn’t be more spot on. Over the next decade, the United States will be unable to fill 10 million new, high-paying jobs because they require postsecondary training and credentials. Unless we can move millions of low-income children onto the college track, we’re facing a disastrous scenario for our country, our young people, and our economy.

A college degree is the new finish line. It’s the equivalent credential in today’s job market of a high school diploma a generation ago.

That’s why the mission (and every initiative) of the organization I lead is to ensure that low-income children, known as CFES Scholars, gain access to and succeed in college. Over the last 22 years, CFES, or College for Every Student, has helped 65,000 low-income youths nationwide get on the path to college. More than 40,000 high school seniors we’ve worked with have gone on to college.

More impressive than the metrics are the students we serve. These inspirational young people have overcome huge obstacles to get to and through college.

Take Shameka, who spent part of her high school years living in a shelter in New York City, and is now at Cornell University’s medical school, about to begin a residency in pediatrics. Or Gregory, homeless when he left Harlem to attend the University of Vermont, who now teaches in his old neighborhood, helping others get on the college track. Or Javarri, from the Florida Panhandle, who as a 9th grader was on the verge of dropping out of high school, but will head to the U.S. Naval Academy in June.

Shameka, Gregory, and Javarri are not only the first in their families to attend college, but also the first to graduate from high school. Ask these three, or thousands of other CFES Scholars, what made the difference, and they will tell you: mentoring, leadership training, and a heavy dose of college exposure.

A college degree is the new finish line. It’s the equivalent credential in today’s job market of a high school diploma a generation ago."

High tech can help, but it is not the solution. Because of the success of our CFES Scholars, I was invited to the White House Education Datapalooza in mid-January. The event, a direct response to the president’s call for action, centered on sharing innovative approaches and products that can move more of America’s children toward degree attainment. Shared strategies included creating online apps to help students understand college costs and find the right college, online courses, and digital badges (virtual records of students’ skills and achievements).

These cutting-edge approaches offer real promise, but the problem with digital strategies is that most low-income students don’t own iPads and iPhones and only have limited Internet access. Consider the fact that fewer than 10 percent of the students we work with have Internet access at home, and you realize how stark the digital divide is. It’s ironic that high-tech solutions being proposed could actually widen, not close, the college-degree gap for low-income kids.

We need “high touch” initiatives to balance the high-tech. If you’re the first in your family to move down the college path, you need a person to help you interpret the data and support you through the complexities of college preparation, cost, and fit. Innovative technology gadgets—without personal support—will not solve equity issues and create social mobility.

What this country needs—and, more important, what low-income kids need—are mentors: real people in their lives helping them navigate the complexities of going to college. Let’s start with 1 million mentors, who would reach 1 million low-income 9th graders. We can achieve this by taking the following three steps:

1. Train half a million students in grades 10-12 to become mentors. CFES has the country’s most highly developed peer-mentor program, and research shows that engaging peer mentors develops their leadership skills and builds their college knowledge, while 98 percent of CFES’ peer mentees show gains in academic achievement and other areas that lead to college success.

2. Following the College Opportunity Summit, more than 500 colleges (both individually and through state consortia) have committed support for President and Michelle Obama’s call to action. Each of these higher education institutions could recruit and train 500 college students. We find that college-student mentors are ideal role models for their younger peers.

3. Every Fortune 500 company could recruit and train 500 employees, accounting for another quarter-million mentors and mentees. CFES partners with the accounting firm Ernst & Young on this initiative, with the company’s employees mentoring high school students in 25 urban centers. Not only are the students who are mentored significantly more likely to attend college because of this interaction, but the volunteers also express greater job satisfaction.

Let’s get 1 million students on the track to college, kids who might not get there otherwise. Let’s position these young people–like Shameka, Gregory, and Javarri–in a place where they can realize the American Dream.

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week

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