Beyond Student Aid: Helping Disadvantaged Students Attend College

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 21, 2013

On his College Affordability Bus Tour this summer, President Obama outlined three steps toward reforming higher education: 1) creating a new ratings system for colleges based on how successful the institution is in graduating students with good career prospects and manageable loan debt; 2) encouraging colleges to redesign the way they deliver instruction in order to become more cost effective; and 3) helping students manage their loan debt by tying loan repayments to income levels.

All three proposals deal with the financial challenges that prevent many students from earning their degrees. However, colleges should not allow the president's well-founded focus on finances to keep them from thinking about ways to support their students emotionally as well.

When a graduate from one of my organization's public charter schools returned for his sophomore year at a prominent university, he was told via e-mail that he would be dropped from his classes and lose housing because of an outstanding student-account balance. Unable to traverse his institution's financial-aid labyrinth, and thinking that somehow this was his fault, he returned home embarrassed and ready to give up on his college aspirations.

Once our alumni counselors became aware of this student's situation, we met with him, contacted the university, and helped advocate on his behalf. Today, the young man is back in the college and on track to earn his bachelor's degree. At first glance, it might seem that the university did not meet the student's financial need, but really it was the student's social and emotional needs that were not being met. The financial aid was available; had the student been assigned a mentor, an adviser, or some type of advocate on campus (as opposed to receiving an e-mail and being automatically dropped from classes), he would have been able to resolve the issue without our intervention.

Recently The New York Times ran companion pieces by Justin Porter and Travis Reginal, friends from Jackson, Miss., attending Harvard and Yale, respectively. Both suffered throughout their freshman year from feelings of guilt at leaving their families and communities behind. Both felt uneasy about the differences between themselves and their overwhelmingly more privileged classmates. One worried he had let people down by not achieving the high marks they expected. Both contemplated not returning for a sophomore year. For these young men, it wasn't money that was threatening their college success, but something far less tangible.

For all the young men and women who, like those above, do pull through on their own or with help from others, there are many more who fall through the cracks. According to a Brookings Institution survey in 2008, only 11 percent of students from families whose income is in the bottom quintile will ever graduate, compared with 53 percent of their classmates from the highest quintile. This is a gap that is more than a financial issue; it is a social issue.

Providing opportunities for low-income and underrepresented students to gain admission to college, keeping tuition costs low, and promoting faster, more efficient paths to graduation are the right steps, but they are not enough. Colleges need to commit to care of the entire person, or cura personalis (to borrow a phrase from my own Jesuit education), by providing social and emotional support to students as they journey through a college experience often filled with potholes.

Great examples of this type of work already exist nationwide. Georgetown University's Community Scholars Program provides support, including a summer program, tutoring, and peer counseling, to students who are often the first members of their families to attend college. Morehouse College has students and parents participate in an intensive orientation program that connects the families to the institution in meaningful ways, including "rites of passage" activities. Cornell University's support of Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate, the student-run mentoring and service group, is a less direct but still important way colleges can help ensure higher rates of college completion.

If we want people from diverse backgrounds to have a chance at participating in a job market that increasingly requires at least a bachelor's degree, we need more colleges to follow these examples. Otherwise, some institutions will not only deprive themselves of graduates, but also of capable applicants as high schools begin steering their graduates toward colleges that provide more supportive environments.

In an ideal world, colleges would not have to do more for some students than others. However, we cannot pretend that our world is ideal, and we cannot let our desire that all students have the same shot at a good college education suffice. For a variety of reasons, many of our most economically vulnerable students are going to arrive on college campuses financially behind, but they may also lack the awareness of college norms and expectations that many of us take for granted.

Colleges alone cannot wipe away a legacy of poverty, miseducation, and inequity, but they can provide the support to help their students catch up. Admitting economically disadvantaged students and providing them with great financial-aid packages is a start, but taking the extra steps to make sure that those students graduate is where colleges need to finish.

Tim King is founder and chief executive of Urban Prep Academies, a nonprofit organization operating a network of public charter schools for African-American boys. One hundred percent of Urban Prep graduates have been admitted to college.