Today, postsecondary educational opportunities abound for students who once believed college was out of reach due to challenges like finances or family obligations. Recent data shows that approximately 4.5 million low-income, first-generation students are enrolled in higher education. For this demographic, college is more affordable--and thus, attainable--than ever thanks to efforts in educational funding such as the Obama administration's aid reform, loan management and greater Pell Grant investment.
It's time to address a new challenge, however: college completion. Only 9 percent of individuals from low-income families obtain a bachelor's degree by age 24. In addition, low-income students are nearly four times more likely to leave higher education after the first year than their peers who do not face the same economic disadvantages.
Professional mentoring organizations have made major strides in helping students achieve academic success at the high school level. At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire--where the majority of the 3,300 youth program participants come from low-income, undereducated communities--the high school graduation rate is 99 percent. When asked what was their motivation when it comes to academics, 100 percent of youth said their biggest influence in graduating high school and enrolling in college was their mentor.
"I'm the son of high school drop outs--my mom and dad--and now I am the first generation high school graduate," said Diego, a program participant who spoke at the organization's 2016 graduation ceremony. "And my Big Brother Art has been helping me through the whole college process. If it wasn't for him, I'd be like my parents just dropping out and not going to college."
Without a mentor, life would have gone in an entirely different direction for Diego and the thousands of other youth who received constant guidance, support and motivation through the program.
Participants in youth programs traditionally "age out" at 18, but the consistent success of mentoring prompted the organization's leadership to look beyond high school graduation. What if mentoring relationships continued past age 18? Young adults could continue to pursue their goals while receiving the same guidance, support and motivation as they transition out of high school.
This month, the idea came to fruition. With $1 million in grant funding, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire announced the expansion of its Destination Future initiative to now serve participants up to the age of 25. Aiming to reduce the issue of college persistence, the initiative's main focus will be to expose young adults to all avenues of success post-high school, specifically the three E's: education, enlistment and employment.
In addition to professionally supported mentoring relationships, the initiative provides participants with career-building skills and financial literacy workshops, competitive scholarships and apprenticeship opportunities with partner corporations.
The purpose of Big Brothers Big Sisters is for every child to have the opportunity to succeed in life and live up to their full potential. This purpose will always remain true, but as times change and new challenges arise, the organization will continue to take a progressive approach in fulfilling this promise for all youth served by our programs.