By Lynne Martin, Executive Director, Students Rising Above
How do you break the cycle of poverty and create economic opportunities for young people who have overcome tremendous obstacles such as poverty, abuse, and neglect? Ask Ali Rucker. She went from being financially on her own at age 15, to Wellesley College, and is now working at a law firm and considering going to law school.
In today's world, a college degree is essential to obtaining meaningful employment. But the expense of college is increasingly beyond the reach for millions of young Americans and their families. As the New York Times recently pointed out, the challenges are especially daunting for low-income students or those who are the first in their family. Uninformed college selection, limited understanding of the financial aid process, a need to earn money, social isolation, and a lack of guidance from family and school officials are often insurmountable. That's why first-generation students are four times more likely to drop out after their first year than their more advantaged peers.
Reframing The Issue
For far too long, the national dialogue about college education has been focused on access and affordability. In fact, the real issue is the abysmal college completion rate, particularly for students who are facing long odds. What's needed are comprehensive programs across the nation that enable promising students to overcome long odds and become dynamic contributors and role models.
Students Rising Above (SRA), an award-winning nonprofit based in San Francisco, has built a model that is addressing the crisis in college completion rates among low-income students and other disadvantaged youth.
Since it was founded 15 years ago, Students Rising Above has consistently demonstrated that when capable students get financial support, ongoing guidance through college, and job training upon graduation, they can achieve their full potential.
The results speak for themselves: 90 percent of SRA students graduate from college, which is nearly three times the national average for low-income, first-generation students. National statistics for foster care youth are even more dismal; only 2 percent graduate from college. SRA can serve as a national model, and we welcome the opportunity to share our approach with local communities.
A Comprehensive Solution
SRA's award-winning program has succeeded by following a clearly defined methodology. SRA selects low-income, first-generation students, many of whom are foster care youth, or homeless, or abandoned. Drawing from the 11-county Bay Area, SRA identifies promising students and helps them afford college by providing tuition assistance and securing financial aid from the college or university.
SRA and its team continue on with students through college, providing emotional support and guidance. This personal and active relationship with students is just as important as any part of the SRA program. For many students like Ali, SRA became part of her extended family.
SRA recognized early on that a college degree is only the first step to economic advancement. Students need to obtain the skills and experience that employers seek. According to a recent study by McKinsey & Co., almost 40 percent of employers say lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies.
For first-generation college students, embarking on a career path is like entering foreign territory. They may not know how to choose a career path, write a resume or interview for that first job. Many have little experience or no role models to help with all the important details -- a firm handshake, small talk, dressing professionally -- details that can make the difference when competing for a job.
To help students transition into the workforce, SRA launched its successful College2Career program to ensure its students are job-market ready upon college graduation. College2Career includes a mix of real-life work experience through summer internship placements, opportunities for networking and job shadowing, individual career coaching, and job readiness workshops in resume writing, interviewing, dressing professionally, and workplace etiquette.
SRA takes particular care to help students with internships -- which truly opens the door to opportunity. Because most competitive internships today are unpaid, SRA raises funds to provide a stipend for students in unpaid internships. This allows our students to have the same career-building opportunities as their more advantaged peers. Earning money during an internship may not be an issue for wealthier families, but it's critical for low-income students.
SRA's career development program, like its college completion support, is tailored to the individual. It works. SRA students acquire many of the same opportunities and connections that most children from upper class and educated families take for granted.
As a society, we have a decision to make. We can invest fully in the education of our children or we can do something less than that. In the long run, education is far more cost effective than the alternatives of social welfare, and incarceration. It is also the right thing to do. The return on our investment in education multiplies as students enter the workforce, enjoy rewarding careers, pay taxes, volunteer in their communities, and raise a new generation of college bound children.
We've learned that when we invest in students, the returns are priceless. Just ask Ali.