Public Schools Need to Promote College Persistence

Providing this level of assistance is admittedly expensive, but in my experience, there are many corporate and private partners ready to help. We just have to make the case.
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From most vantage points, Rosalinda Crescencio, a junior at the University of Tampa, looks like a typical college student. She studies criminology, raises money for the American Cancer Society, and looks forward to graduating and starting her career.

But her journey through college is anything but typical. In fact, as a first generation college student from a low-income community, the odds of her completing her bachelor's degree are stacked against her. According to a 2006 Department of Education report, only 16.3 percent of low-income students are prepared for college. More strikingly, only 11 percent of African-American or Latino high school students in Rosalinda's home state of Texas will earn a bachelor's degree.

We've talked a great deal the past 30 years about why certain demographics are at such a disadvantage. Resources play a part, of course. A lack of quality school options do too. Teacher training and leadership development are both factors. Conditions at home and in neighborhoods across our cities also have an enormous impact on whether students are engaged learners while they are at school.

We have many programs that address these issues and help our most disadvantaged students get to college, but we need to focus just as hard on keeping our students in college. In December, the NY Times ran a heart-breaking story about three Galveston, Texas, students who were determined to get off the island and pursue their dreams. With a great deal of support, they found their way to college, but staying there turned out to be a different story. All three struggled to stay in and on found herself back in Galveston saddled with immense debt.

We, as educational leaders, must not be satisfied with our college admission numbers. Schools should definitely pursue high acceptance rates. College readiness and acceptance rates are important measures of how a school system is doing, but it's not the end of the conversation. We must also be there to help our students persist in college.

We must first understand why students come home. Funding is the first obvious problem. Rosalinda graduated from an Uplift Education school in a low-income area of Dallas. Her parents get by the best they can, but affording their daughter's college education is a massive undertaking. Her family was also uncomfortable with her distance. Families of first generation students are often close-knit and frequently prefer that their children stay home. There are often major cultural differences at school that must be overcome as well.

Public schools must address these issues. We send them off to college, and we must support them through it. This means at least three things:

1. We must educate parents. They have to understand the benefits of college. For our low-income families, they need to see how a college degree goes a long way towards breaking the cycle of poverty. Many schools are launching innovative programs like parent universities that offer workshops to teach parents how to prepare their children for college.

2. We must provide adequate financial guidance. With the cost of a typical public college education exceeding $20,000 per year, families require a great deal of information about how to navigate the financial aid, grant and scholarship process. We need to make sure they are prepared to manage this burden as their children earn their bachelor's degrees.

3. We must provide ongoing college counseling for our alumni. Most of our first generation college students need help managing the various challenges that arise especially during their first two years on campus. Colleges do not often know the particular issues their students face. We need to play a role by advising our alumni as well.

Rosalinda has persisted at the University of Tampa largely because she has received this support from her high school alumni counselor at Uplift Peak Preparatory School in Dallas. It needs to happen for more of our college students.

Providing this level of assistance is admittedly expensive, but in my experience, there are many corporate and private partners ready to help. We just have to make the case.

A college completion rate of 11 percent is a tragedy, especially when students from other demographics exceed 50 percent. Some say that not every student has to go to college, but far too frequently this rationale covers low performance, lack of readiness and inability to persist at a four-year institution. If we don't work toward eliminating this disparity, then we will be dooming entire cohorts of students to the abject poverty so many of them already know. We can do better than that, and given that many school systems already are doing it, we know it is possible.