I was a college freshman at Tufts University in September 1990. On my first day on campus, I remember feeling stressed, alone, and more than a bit scared as I watched my parents drive away. I was left in an unfamiliar environment with total strangers. Doubt began creeping into my mind as to whether I was prepared to compete with my peers academically. I put on a face of excitement and friendliness to mask my overwhelming feelings of doubt and uncertainty. I recently had occasion to remember these early days of college as I was being interviewed by Jessica Mendoza about the transition to college for CPE students for her article in the Christian Science Monitor, College Supply List for Low-Income Students: Books, Financial Aid …and a Mentor.
By the time I arrived home for my first semester break, I realized that I was one of the lucky ones. While some close friends had already dropped out of college unnoticed and were quickly moving on a different path in life, I was literally surrounded at Tufts by people committed to my success. For starters, I had parents who were college graduates who were able to coach me on the litany of college applications, forms, decisions, and attitudes needed for successful college matriculation. They also called upon a close friend, a college professor at Tufts, to keep a watchful eye on me. As a college basketball player, I had coaches, members of the athletic department, and alumni who formed a protective safety net, and provided me with networking opportunities that helped me enormously as I prepared for a career.
These contrasting experiences made an indelible mark on me. Indeed, the desire to address this inequality has fueled me over the past 16 years leading CPE – we want every student, regardless of background, to have the same advantages and support systems that I had. Sadly, without our help, most low-income, first-generation to college students do not.
As illustrated by Donald Earl Collins in Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First Generation Students, going to college for low-income, first-gen students can feel like navigating an alien planet. These students often undertake their journeys alone, without their families in tow – traveling to campus, checking into their dorms, even selecting meal plans and majors. The financial burdens and the hard choices they present can be overwhelming. Imagine the feeling of having to decide whether money is better spent on $250 textbooks or more essential items like food. Or wondering if you really belong because other students’ backgrounds and experiences seem so different from yours. Then imagine doing all this while having a job, ongoing family obligations, and a sense of guilt for “selfishly” going to college. This all adds up to the same self-doubts and anxiety that I had in 1990, despite the fact that these students are talented, prepared, and driven.
It is not surprising, then, that low-income, first gen to college students have trouble completing college. In her article The Cost of Being First, Melissa Scholes Young captured the essence of the problem:
In “Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students,” senior scholars at the Pell Institute found that after six years of enrolling in college, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students nationwide had earned bachelor’s degrees; the rate was 55 percent for their more advantaged peers. With 4.5 million low-income, first-generation students enrolling in higher education, hopes are high but disparities in outcomes are growing. Students in this “doubly disadvantaged population” are more than four times more likely to leave college after the first year. They take with them significant debt that burdens themselves and their families with little to show for it.
Now consider one more data point: according to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, by 2020, nearly 76 percent of jobs in the Washington D.C. region will require a bachelor’s degree.
This is why CPE expanded its programming four years ago to continue mentoring our students throughout their college years. Our college students are urged on by college-educated, volunteer mentors who believe in the promise of college and have experience in making that dream a reality. The tight connections formed with mentors give our students a life line to call, a sounding board for problems, and a guide to help them through the challenging decisions they face while on campus. With the help of CPE’s research-based mentoring curriculum, each and every week mentors nudge, direct, encourage, listen, help find internships, advise, empathize, and provide a safe haven for CPE students.
The results so far are validating our concept: over 80 percent of CPE students who enrolled in our new college program in 2013 are still enrolled in college and making progress toward a degree. We are energized by their progress and intend to continue to expand the program to help even more students. Low-income, first gen students may not have the advantages I enjoyed, or those you or your children enjoyed either. But with your help, CPE can create a network of success that makes up for it. Let’s continue to work together to help many more students join CPE’s program so with our help they can earn a college degree and be prepared for the 21st century workforce.