I get asked all the time if college is for everyone. The question people are usually really asking is, “should we go to the trouble to send poor kids to college?” I respond that college is definitely not for everyone but that our country can only succeed if we make college more accessible to more capable, low-income, first-generation students. Far from charity cases, these trailblazers have the potential to transform our workforce. We should all be concerned about their futures.
The end of poverty starts with college. A recent Pew Research study found that today’s young adults with degrees earn an average of $17,000 more annually and are four times less likely to be unemployed and living in poverty than their peers without degrees. Over the course of a lifetime, college graduates earn $1 million more than high school graduates.
Educating our capable low-income students through college is not only the right thing to do; it is the only way to maintain our country’s strong workforce in a competitive global economy. Our country needs every one of our capable high school students to graduate from college. According to a recent Georgetown study, we will fall 5 million college-educated workers short of workforce demand by 2020 at current degree attainment rates.
As it stands, students from upper income families are almost ten times more likely to earn a college degree than their low-income peers. Each year, at least 240,000 low-income students who are capable of attending college do not enroll. There are 240,000 individual stories behind this disparity. Jessica—who despite great test scores and grades, was told she’d be more comfortable in a trade program and William, who did not complete his application to his dream school when confronted with an application fee his parents could not manage—both come to mind.
We know that when students receive financial aid information and coaching, entrance exam tutoring and guidance in visiting campuses, we level the playing field. We have also seen that when students have the support of an adult who helps them answer and silence a lifetime of voices telling them they’re not “college material,” they can imagine college and can make it happen. Importantly, the support cannot stop when freshman year begins. Coaching and support all the way through college graduation day seals the deal.
When these students succeed they give us more than feel-good stories about the power of education. These kids are following the surest path out of poverty and will change their families, communities and the country as a result. We need them to succeed and grow their numbers until we reclaim the 240,000 scholars and workers we lose each year. If we can make this happen, these graduates will take on critical work as teachers, scientists, engineers, contractors and journalists, building a rich, diverse 21st century workforce.