Though it was many years ago, my siblings and I were the first generation in our family to attend college. Today, as a volunteer and board member with the Horizons Student Enrichment Program, I have the privilege of being inspired by the young scholars in our city school system who are part of the Horizons summer learning program, and who are on their own journey to college. Wanting to help them, as family friends and mentors helped me, I am always seeking out opportunities to help expand college access for first generation students.
Several weeks ago, I attended the GradNation Summit in Washington, D.C. GradNation is the major initiative of America’s Promise Alliance, an organization dedicated to ensuring the educational success of our youth. Primarily meant for educators and providers of youth services, this high-energy gathering brought people together who believe that they can make a positive difference in the lives of the youth of our country, helping them realize their full potential.
I was there because I personally wanted to understand how, in the work we do as communications consultants to colleges, we could be more contributive to the process of connecting colleges to prospective “First Gen” students. While at the Summit I learned from, and was deeply touched by, the dozens of young people who told their stories of triumph. Organizations with social justice and healthful living missions described how they positively affect the life-trajectory of our youth. And many people in leadership positions such as Alma and Colin Powell (founders of America’s Promise Alliance), Arne Duncan, Cory Booker, and others challenged us all to be vigilant in our responsibility to improve the lives of our country’s primary energy source: Our children.
I was inspired, and left with many ideas for how to better connect schools to prospective First Gen students, and vice versa. While reviewing the many ways that better communications can help, however, I realized that all of these ideas came down to just one, fundamental human principle: To care for one another.
Many colleges across America with a mission of access must be saluted for stepping up to recruit students from under-represented groups, and for providing the support services necessary to ensure that these students succeed and graduate on time. Yet there is much more work to be done. As the New York Times Magazine conveyed in the May 18, 2014 cover story, Who Gets to Graduate? “whether a student graduates or not (from college) seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor – how much money his or her parents make.” Put statistically, “About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshman born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.”
At the heart of the problem is not a disparity in the intelligence or the work ethic of the students at each end of the economic scale. It has more to do with a widespread feeling among the low-income group that they don’t belong in college, and that they don’t have the ability to succeed with college-level academics. Efforts such as the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan (TIP) developed by the University of Texas at Austin successfully address this situation, and fundamental to the TIP approach is building a community around these students – a community of advisors and peers who care.
So I put forth a challenge to all of us who focus on student recruitment: To make sure that our marketing strategies don’t blind us to the fact that what we are really doing is building a community, a collegiate community that values caring as much as curriculum, and human capital as much as net-tuition revenue generation. Let’s occasionally look past the data about how well our advertising is performing and look into inviting families from surrounding city neighborhoods to campuses to join a conversation, sit in a class, or share a meal.
I urge all of us who attended college to seek opportunities to interact with more young people – in schools, community centers, neighborhoods, churches, sporting venues, and at clubs – to be the person who reaches out, who introduces teens to the opportunities of college. In a sense, we are all admissions counselors. Let’s raise our country’s human capital to its highest level by taking up the simple GradNation charge: “Be the adult who cares enough to help a young person.”