Money and Acceptance Are Not Enough

Hard to believe, isn't it? How could a full scholarship to a prestigious college not ensure matriculation and graduation for our low income and minority students?

Also worth discussing is the shockingly low rate of college completion among these students due to lack of financial resources, but the focus here is on the following scenario: a bright and driven young woman receives a coveted acceptance letter accompanied with a break-down of financial aid. To her delight and to those around her the news is uplifting. I have actually seen letters in which the total amount owed by the student is $0. A celebratory dance ensues, senior year is completed, bags are packed, and freshman year begins.

Then things fall apart. Instead of a seamless transition from high school in New York City to a freshman experience on a leafy campus, too many low income and minority students flounder, many drop-out. Hilary Pennington, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which examines enrollment patterns in higher education, had it right when she said, "If you look at who walks across the stage for a diploma, it's still largely the white, upper-income population."

So what can we do? Adults -- parents, guidance counselors, after-school program leaders need to do our homework on behalf of these young people and look carefully at the following:

Diversity of the undergraduate population on campus. Forbes takes a careful look at these numbers and reported on their website in an article titled, "America's Most Diverse Colleges" that six of the top ten most diverse college campuses are located within New York City's metropolitan area -- good news indeed for Row New York graduates. Also worth noting -- 17 of the 20 most diverse schools were public institutions.

Ask colleges what they are doing to retain these low-income and minority students. Have they put their money where their mouths are in terms of resources -- staffing, academic, and social support? Once on campus, what sort of support systems are in place? Does the college work to integrate students from different backgrounds? One of our graduates arrived on campus to discover that she and the handful of other Black freshmen were put on the same floor in a dorm not per any of their requests or prior knowledge -- leaving them feeling isolated on a primarily white campus.

Take a careful look at not only who attends these colleges, but who actually graduates from them. Are the low income and minority students standing with their peers at graduation or simply being counted during freshmen orientation?

Is the college affordable? (I know I said this wasn't going to be about money, but I couldn't resist). When I was in college, lending agents were practically throwing money at us. Need to borrow more spending money? No problem. Clearly there were flaws in this practice (see FY 2008), but this also allowed many people to take out necessary loans. This type of money is no longer highly available so borrowing tuition funds is neither easy nor highly recommended. Who wants to graduate into this job market with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt? We need to help students look carefully at what is being offered to them by different colleges.

Some private colleges try to woo the Row New York girls with scholarships. They are eager to diversify their campuses and love our strong smart girls. Here's the problem -- they offer four or five thousand dollars. Tuition is $47,000. You do the math. CUNY and SUNY schools are a great route for our students and I always encourage our girls to take a good look at this option.

College freshmen are in a clear grey area in terms of social-emotional and academic development. In the eyes of the law, they are adults. I am guessing they are adults in their own eyes too. However, in the eyes of their professors and resident assistants they are still very much young people desperately in need of guidance and support.

So who catches these new "adults" on campus who have gained college acceptance through their own hard work and smarts, but who are no longer buoyed by a caring teacher, a mom who is their champion, or an after-school program that became their "family"?

Sadly, the answer for too many is nobody. And these young people who trotted off to campus in late summer, filled with hope, pack their bags prematurely and head home long before their peers for whom college graduation is the expected norm.

We need to try to understand why these students are leaving instead of thriving. Do they feel isolated? Do they miss home? Is the change too dramatic? Is the independence overwhelming? I don't know the answers. I do know that we need to begin the dialogue and hear from people who have been in these shoes and succeeded against the odds as well as those who have left campus. This might be the first step in finding some clarity.

We must all do better to change the trajectory, to ask colleges to work harder on this front, and ourselves as non-profit leaders to help our students make good choices and extend our support into these critical and challenging years so we are well represented as a country, not just a sub-section of our country, as our young people walk across the stage at graduation.