Sargent Shriver, the driving force behind the War on Poverty, was all about opportunity, optimism, invention, and forward motion.
Inspired by the remarkable success of the GI Bill a generation earlier, Sarge believed bringing college within reach for low-income students should be a key part of the War on Poverty. That determination produced federal programs such as Pell Grants, Upward Bound, and Talent Search, which have transformed the college landscape, making higher education more accessible for millions of Americans. In fact, since 1972, more than 60 million students have pursued higher education with a Pell Grant, including 9.8 million students today, most of whom are from families that earn less than $30,000 per year.
Yet college access and attainment remain unequal.
The gap between low-income and high-income Americans with bachelor’s degrees has widened from 31 to 45 percentage points over the past 30 years. And for those low-income students who do enroll in college, less than half graduate in six years.
The challenges these students face are complex. They lack the guidance and support they need to prepare for college, apply to schools and for financial aid, enroll, persist, and ultimately graduate. This uphill climb was vividly captured in a New York Times article which profiled three low-income students for whom college “became a leap that they braved without a safety net.”
Fortunately, new approaches and programs have sprung up that focus not only on college access, but also on success. At the heart of these programs are relationships with people who can help students navigate through the financial, academic, emotional, and/or social barriers that college students inevitably confront. These coaches or “caring adults” as we like to call them at America’s Promise give advice and affirmation that struggling students need, and often don’t get, from home or professors.
College Summit, College Possible, and other initiatives in the National College Access Network are positive examples of newer programs doing terrific work in meeting the needs of students today, and they have rigorous evaluations that show powerful outcomes. Colleges themselves are increasingly focused on not only recruiting first-generation college students, but also helping them complete school successfully, such as the University Leadership Network at the University of Texas, documented in a New York Times article by Paul Tough, which focuses primarily on instilling leadership skills in college freshmen by providing classes on time management and team building.
These efforts are also happening at the community level through cross-sector partnerships like the Kalamazoo Promise, Say Yes Buffalo and Louisville, Ky.'s 55,000 Degrees program, all of which help build bridges between high school and college graduation. Creative community solutions like these programs are producing powerful results.
Since the end of World War II, the nation has recognized that investing in people going to college is central to opening the doors of opportunity. These commitments have yielded enormous benefits for millions of Americans and for the American economy. As we celebrate those programs, let us also embrace the spirit of experimentation and invention from the War on Poverty and encourage the next generation of innovations to help create sustainable programs that meet the needs of our 21st-century college students.
With the country now within reach of the GradNation campaign goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, we know that many of these young people will go on to become the first in their families to go to college. Our next wave of investment must make college even more accessible, affordable, and rewarding so that everyone has the opportunity to thrive and find their own version of the American Dream.
John Gomperts is the president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth and the creator of the GradNation campaign. Prior to joining America’s Promise, Mr. Gomperts served as the director of AmeriCorps.
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