Poverty Has an iPhone

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a student I'm mentoring from my hometown of Detroit. This young man was an average high school student and bombed in his first attempt at community college. After dropping out he returned home to work at a nearby Burger King. He indirectly complained to me about the nature of the work and bemoaned not getting enough hours on the schedule to earn a decent paycheck. Neither of his parents graduated from high school. His mom has four other children who each struggle in the Detroit public school system and his dad was imprisoned during some of his most formative years. Still, my dogged belief in the transformative power of education told me I could help and that if I could just get him through college, his life would be dramatically different.

Last year I worked with him to reignite his application process with hopes of him being admitted to a four-year institution and accepted into a summer bridge program as a necessary condition of his success. With some earnest effort he was successful at achieving these two goals. One week before the fall semester began we had a conversation in which he gloated about his new iPhone he would have -- "for school." I promptly inquired about whether he had money for books or if he had confirmed his financial aid package to determine how much he might be expected to pay. The answer to both my queries was a very reticent "no" tinged with a bit of newly found guilt.

In that moment it became clear that poverty, in the short term at least, can often be masked by socialization and a few middle-class accoutrements. Of course poverty is a relative term. In the context of higher education, the phrase "one flat tire away" is often used to describe a large and growing number of college students for whom one minor financial setback is the difference between persistence and dropping out. The National Poverty Center estimates that 22 percent of nation's children under 18 live in poverty. And, the fastest growing populations of young people, Hispanic and African American, experience significantly higher rates of poverty -- 35 percent and approximately 38 percent, respectively. More telling is that African Americans and Hispanics who may not fall below the poverty line are nowhere near wealthy. A 2011 report from The Pew Research Center estimates that the median net wealth of white households is 20 times that of African Americans ($5,677) and 18 times that of Hispanics ($6,325). These students are among the least likely to earn a college degree, in large part, because they cannot afford to remain enrolled long enough to graduate. The 2011-12 average annual cost of tuition and room and board at public four-year institutions is $17,131 for in-state students, $29,657 for those with out-of-state designations. Still, many of these students arrive to college campuses toting the latest iPhones, other high-end electronic devices, and wearing fashionable threads that disguise just how fragile their prospects are for earning a degree, thereby evading real poverty.

The confluence of these educational, social and economic issues creates perhaps the greatest challenge for American higher education. Never in history has the social and economic well-being of the nation been so closely linked to producing significantly more college graduates. This occurs at a time when the fastest growing populations of young people are the least likely to graduate from high school, the cost attending college continues to rise, and far too many students who enroll in college do not complete.

Unfortunately Western concepts of poverty are likely to conjure images of malnourished children from less developed nations. The image of a smartphone-tweeting 20-year-old college dropout with expensive sneakers and student loan debt should be as troubling. Politicians, higher education leaders, and the business community are aware of these trends. I am less sure that any of these communities, individually or collectively, are prepared to address these issues in a way that gets us completely ahead of the curve. The philanthropic sector has carried the college completion banner.

The good news is that more students than ever before are participating in higher education. This is also true for poor and minority students. From 1998 to 2008 the percentage of minority students enrolled in college increased by 56 percent -- over two million more students. More importantly, a college education has maintained its potency as a cure for poverty. My mentee graduating from college has serious consequences not only for him, but his younger siblings and the next generation of his family. Collectively, these students will determine what kind of nation we will be in the next 30 years. If we do not seriously invest in college completion the Western concept of poverty might be more familiar and less distant.