Opinion: To the college students who never graduated, we failed you

First-generation college students have the skills to get into school, but are the colleges helping them enough once they arrive on campus? (AJC File)

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

In the past, we've blamed college dropouts for their failures to try harder, to study more, to persevere. Now, we're looking at what the colleges failed to do, especially for first-generation students who don't have parents able to assist them over the hurdles of paying for school, figuring out majors and courses and just managing what can be a complex and, at times, indifferent bureaucracy.

At the last few education conferences I've attended, there have been presentations on how many low-income kids lack the self-advocacy skills needed to thrive at college. The model for success these children followed in K-12 emphasized keeping their heads down and getting the work done with as little demand as possible of the adults around them. That does not work in college where introductory classes have 200 students and keeping your head down just means no one sees  you.

Research also finds these students often give up due to financial rough spots, sometimes leaving school because they're short a few hundred dollars. Georgia State University has become a national role model for its Panther Retention Grants, which seek to provide modest aid -- as little as $300 -- to students to enable them to remain enrolled and on path to graduation.

According to GSU: Last year, nearly 2,000 Georgia State students were brought back to the classroom—and kept on the path to attaining a college degree—through the program. Sixty-one percent of the seniors who received Panther Retention Grant support last academic year graduated within two semesters of receiving the grant and 82 percent either had graduated or were still enrolled one year after receiving the grant. With more than 5,000 grants awarded over the past four years, the Panther Retention Grant program has prevented thousands of students from dropping out of Georgia State.

Tina Fernandez is the CEO of Achieve Atlanta, which works to ensure that more Atlanta students go to college and earn a degree. In a guest column today, she speaks to the thousands of college students who should have graduated last year and did not.

By Tina Fernandez

In December, I had the great honor of delivering the commencement address at Kennesaw State University's winter graduation ceremonies.  After sharing with the graduates aspects of my own journey, I encouraged them to do three things: Dream big. Pursue purpose over perfection. Find Love.

While preparing my speech, I thought a lot about my audience, young people earning their bachelor’s degree, embarking on the next phase of their lives.  Many of those graduating were the first in their families to go to college and undoubtedly many more had to overcome obstacles to get to graduation day.

Because my work centers around college success for low-income and first-generation students, I know that because these students were graduating college, they could be confident about better outcomes for their lives —higher salaries, lower rates of unemployment, better health, even longer lives.  These are truly things to be celebrated.

But I couldn't help think about those students across the state of Georgia who had started college but never finished and who would never hear a commencement address.  What would I say, if given the chance, to the thousands of students who enrolled in college somewhere in Georgia but didn't make it to graduation. The truth is, it wouldn't be a speech, but an apology. Here's what I would say:

To the would-be class of 2017:  We collectively failed you.

Today, you may be sad or depressed that you didn’t finish college and might believe that you weren’t “college material.” This is not true. The fact that you graduated high school, took your college entrance exams, applied to college, were admitted and figured out all the paperwork to enroll in college are a clear sign that you had both the desire and the ability to succeed in college.  The reason you didn’t finish was likely due to one or more of the following reasons:  1) you struggled academically, 2) you struggled emotionally or 3) you struggled financially.  While you may believe that it was solely your individual responsibility to overcome these struggles, the reality is that we could have, should have, done more to set you up for success.

We didn’t make sure that your K-12 education was equipped to teach you all you needed to know to do college-level work. When you got to college, it may have been the first time you were away from your families, and your neighborhoods. You may have been the only black kid, or brown kid, or poor kid or undocumented kid in a class or a dorm. We didn’t help you or your classmates bridge the social gaps that come from growing up in a segregated society.  We expected you to figure it out all by yourself.  Even though we know there are proven practices to help students succeed in college and to graduate, we didn’t invest in making these available at every college across our state.

We also made college so expensive --it can cost as much as $23,000 a year to attend some of our state’s public institutions, nearly half of Georgia’s median household-- you may have been in financial distress. And we didn’t help you with sufficient scholarships or grants designed to help you succeed.  If you were lucky enough to get the HOPE scholarship, we took it away from you, as soon as you struggled academically, meaning that not only were you worried about your grades, but also about how you would pay for school if your grades were not good enough.

And worst of all, we lied to you.  We told you that if you worked hard, you’d be able to achieve all your dreams.  Even though you may have worked 20, 30, or 40 hours a week while in school to support yourself and your family, or even though you stayed up all night working through complicated school work, it was not enough.

I wish I could say otherwise, but because you don’t have a post-secondary credential or degree, it will be harder for you to get and keep a job. By 2020, 60% of jobs in Georgia will require a degree or credential. While our state’s economy is projected to grow above the national average, you are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than people with a college degree. If you are able to find a job, it is likely that you won’t make enough money to live above the poverty line. You will also have less chance at upward mobility over time.

And finally, because you enrolled in college, it is likely that you have loans to repay. With a low-wage job, your loan payments will take a good portion of your salary and if you can’t pay your debt, your credit will suffer and you won’t be able to get a loan to buy a car, or a house, or go back to school someday.

And in failing you, we failed ourselves.

Despite the constant debate about the value of higher education, the fact is that earning a post-secondary degree is the surest way to have a shot at an opportunity-filled life.  And maximizing the potential of our citizenry is the surest way for our state to achieve economic success. When we commit to setting up all our students for success and fully invest in our state’s greatest resource —our young people— we will finally be the Georgia we are meant to be.

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