Thursday, October 1, 2015

Why Aren't More Kids Finishing College?

As I wrote a couple of years ago, our students have a lot of obstacles to succeed in college.  When we first conceived of the College Prep program, we at first thought the primary need was helping our students make more educated decisions about where to attend college.  Some of our students "under apply" to colleges we think of as overly easy.  On the other hand it has been well documented that many of our low-income students arrive at a campus and are in shell shock from day one.  They start to doubt themselves; do they really belong there?

RISE's annual college trip allows students to see as wide a spectrum of colleges as possible:  HBCU's (historically black colleges and universities) and PWI's (predominantly white institutions), private and public, single-sex and co-ed, urban and rural, small and large.  Many of our students at first are reluctant to consider HBCU's given the negativity of African-American life they see around them.  But so many HBCU's impress us every time we visit:  Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, just to name a few.  Most of our students end up attending an HBCU, if for nothing else than to lessen the culture shock that is freshman year.

RISE also helps our students with some incidental costs with enrollment and getting started.  Many of our students have no relative or close friend with a car to take them to college, and the $100 or so it costs to reserve housing can also be a huge obstacle.  Sometimes there is an emergency need like an expensive book.  Often low-income students will be shut out of classes because they owe a small bill, but with RISE they are a phone call away from a lifeline.

Finally, someone on RISE's staff will visit each of our College Prep students once each semester for the first two years of college, making the RISE College Prep program a unique four-year program.  Sometimes the visit can serve just to boost the spirits, but often the RISE staffer can meet with a counselor or professor with the student and help work out issues.

Having said all that, not everyone has a smooth freshman year.  Many schools admit students for a January start, knowing full well that full beds will become empty ones after only one semester.  One of our students in the class of 2014 came home last October and did not want to go back.  (The lesson there was:  Never let them come home during the first semester; they will only get more homesick!)

Many of our students endure incredible trauma during their childhood, and as many psychologists have reported, that type of stress can not be easily undone.  Such students will have less confidence and more negative reaction to any adversity.  Imagine being abused by a family member for years and then getting your first D as a freshman.  I guess all that negative stuff was true, thinks the student.

The first RISE College Prep cohort, the graduating class of 2014, was a collection of particularly fragile students, particularly the males.  Only one of the males has a father that has not been murdered or incarcerated.  Three of the young men are now financially independent at age 19, that is totally on their own for housing, food, etc.

The second cohort just entered college this past August, and so far the reports are all positive, although we all know that can change.  RISE's goal is realistic:  a 75% completion rate for all the cohorts within six years, a rate that would far surpass the national average and also dwarf the rate of low-income African Americans, which hovers at about 10% nationally.

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