Let me be clear. College is not right for everyone, but it undisputedly remains the ticket to socioeconomic mobility. We need to stop debating its value, and instead focus on ensuring more students have access to college.
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Recent published reports based on data from The Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., as well as a study in the journal Science, definitively conclude that college graduates earn more money -- a staggering 98 percent more --than adults without a degree. What's more, the decision not to attend college can result in $500,000 in lost income over the course of one's lifetime.

Let me be clear. College is not right for everyone, but it undisputedly remains the ticket to socioeconomic mobility. We need to stop debating its value, and instead focus on ensuring more students -- particularly those from lower income families -- have access to college. If we don't, the income gap in this country will continue to widen and our society will be robbed of the insights and innovations of a broad spectrum of its promising citizens.

My passion for this issue developed during my undergraduate days at Smith College. Many of my fellow students had come from privilege and attended elite private high schools. For them, a quality college experience was an expectation and the opportunity to attend was never in doubt. But Sue, a high-achieving classmate who came from a family with few financial resources, had a different story. She was able to attend only because she had received a full scholarship, and to remain a student, she had to maintain high grades. This was her one shot, and she was determined not to waste it.

Although we came from different backgrounds, Sue and I became close friends. We helped each other navigate the cultural landscape of college, and she inspired me to work harder through her diligence and determination. We followed different paths, but both went on to successful futures helping the next generation succeed. That experience taught me an important lifelong lesson -- when high-potential, low-income students have access to higher education, it helps more than just the individual. I have seen throughout my career how these students can transform a classroom and enrich an entire community.

Instead of debating value, we must focus on helping students like Sue go to college. Navigating the process -- from admissions and financial-aid to striking a comfortable balance of social acceptance and academic success -- is daunting for all college-bound students, but especially those who are the first in their families to pave the way. We must ensure that all students -- those paying full tuition and those on scholarship -- have the support necessary to succeed and graduate.

Many students leave college not because of academics, but because they lack the tools to maneuver the cultural terrain. For low-income students, that may mean they can't afford to accompany their peers for a weekend dinner or a trip to a nearby city. That great internship opportunity may be out of reach because they can't afford housing. A recent newspaper story chronicled the trials of low-income students who enroll in competitive four-year institutions. As the article bluntly stated: "Rich kids graduate; poor and working class kids don't."

We have to change that.

At Dickinson, we provide the personal connections that help students succeed, and this year we are launching a new initiative that will connect each and every new student with an upper-class student mentor who can help them through the transition to college. Our students enthusiastically responded to our requests to provide guidance to incoming first-year students. But we won't stop there. We are providing layered support with alumni and staff mentors as well. We also will provide specialized help to students who are the first in their families to attend college, connecting them with first-generation faculty and students who understand their particular challenges. We know that providing peer and adult support is the key to helping students achieve.

An e-mail from a recent first-generation alumnus to a Dickinson administrator underscores how powerful connections can make a difference: "I still vividly remember the day, four years ago; I sat in your office defeated, giving up on this dream. I cannot believe where I stand today. I wanted to thank you for providing the support at the precise moment to keep pushing through."

As a nation, let's move beyond the value debate and find innovative ways to provide promising students who lack financial resources with the tools to succeed. It is an investment in our greater society. An educated public is the key to a thriving democracy. It is also a primary answer to closing the income gap.

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