The president and first lady recently hosted a gathering at the White House for 100 college, philanthropic, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to help low-income students attain college degrees.
Whether or not this opportunity summit turns out to be a watershed moment remains to be seen. What’s indisputable is the urgent need for results. A generation ago, America ranked number one in the world in the proportion of citizens with college degrees. Today we’re 12th. Even more disturbing is the fact that the educational gap between our low-income children and their wealthier peers, as measured by high school diplomas and college degrees, has widened every year since 1980.
At the summit, the Obamas declared that a college diploma has never been more important than it is today.
Over the next decade, the United States will be unable to fill 10 million new, high-paying jobs because we don’t have enough workers with the necessary postsecondary training and credentials. Unless we can move millions of low-income children onto the college track, our country faces a disastrous scenario.
A college degree is the new finish line. It’s the equivalent credential in today’s job market of a high school diploma just a few years ago.
That’s why the mission of the organization I lead is to ensure that low-income children gain access to and succeed in college. Since 1992, we’ve helped 65,000 low-income youth get on the path to college, and over the last six years, more than 90 percent of our 12th grade students have pursued higher education.
More impressive than the metrics are the students we serve.
Take Shameka, who grew up on the streets of New York, and is now at Cornell Medical School, about to begin a residency in pediatrics. Or Gregory, homeless when he left Harlem to attend the University of Vermont, who now teaches in his old neighborhood, helping others get on the college track. Or Javarri from the Florida Panhandle who as a ninth grader was on the verge of dropping out of high school but is headed to the Naval Academy in June.
Shameka, Gregory and Javarri are not only the first in their families to attend college but the first to graduate from high school. Ask these three, or thousands of other CFES scholars, what made the difference and they will tell you: mentoring, leadership training and a heavy dose of college exposure.
High tech can help but is not the solution.
Because of the success of our CFES scholars, I was invited to the White House Education Datapolooza in mid-January. At the event, innovators shared products intended to move more of America’s youth toward degree attainment: online courses, digital badges and apps to help students understand college costs and find the right college.
These cutting-edge approaches offer real promise, but there’s a digital divide in this country. Consider the fact that fewer than 10 percent of our students have Internet at home.
Ironically, hi-tech solutions could actually widen, not close, the college-degree gap for low-income kids.
We need hi-touch to balance hi-tech. Innovative technology gadgets — without personal support — will not solve equity issues and create social mobility.
What this country needs, and more important, what these low-income kids need are mentors: real people in their lives helping them navigate the complexities of going to college. One million mentors could support a million low-income ninth graders, close to 50 percent of the economically at-risk students in this grade cohort nationally. Here’s a doable, high-impact strategy that will yield the kind of results so many of us want to see:
1) Train half a million students in grades 10-12 to become peer mentors. Engaging peer mentors develops their leadership skills and college knowledge, while research confirms that 98 percent of peer mentees show gains in academic achievement and other areas that lead to college success.
2) Enlist 500 colleges that have committed to the White House call to action to each train 500 college students, who are ideal role models for their younger peers.
3) Tap 500 corporations to each recruit 500 employees, accounting for another quarter million mentors. My organization has seen the power of corporate volunteers through our partnership with Ernst & Young, whose employees mentor high school students in 25 urban centers.
Get one million students on the track to college, kids who might not get there otherwise, and we’ll bring back the American dream, not just for our low-income youth but for every one of us.
Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College for Every Student, which is based in Essex, N.Y.MORE IN Perspective
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