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America’s degree divide wastes students’ potential and hampers the nation

REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn
Our country can only succeed if we make college more accessible to more capable, low-income, first-generation students.

I get asked all the time if college is for everyone. The question people are usually really asking is, “Should we go to the trouble to send poor kids to college?” I respond that college is definitely not for everyone but that our country can only succeed if we make college more accessible to more capable, low-income, first-generation students. Far from charity cases, these trailblazers have the potential to transform our work force. We should all be concerned about their futures.

MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Jim McCorkell

If you earned a college degree this spring or 30 years ago this May, chances are your parents did, too. In many respects, your college education started the minute your parents applied to their schools of choice, as it’s likely that they shined a light on the entire process for you and conveyed their excitement about the college experience to you from your early years on. For many people, it’s not only the concrete advice they receive that makes them confident about college. It’s also the certainty, instilled from a very early age, that college is a known, comfortable place where you belong, an assumed part of your future.

The end of poverty starts with college. A recent Pew Research study found that today’s young adults with degrees earn an average of $17,000 more annually and are four times less likely to be unemployed and living in poverty than their peers without degrees. Over the course of a lifetime, college graduates earn $1 million more than high-school graduates. 

Educating our capable low-income students through college is not only the right thing to do; it is the only way to maintain our country’s strong work force in a competitive global economy. Our country needs every one of our capable high-school students to graduate from college. According to a recent Georgetown study, by 2020 74 percent of jobs in Minnesota will require postsecondary education.

As it stands, students from upper-income families are almost 10 times more likely to earn a college degree than their low-income peers. Each year, at least 240,000 low-income students who are capable of attending college do not enroll. There are 240,000 individual stories behind this disparity. Jessica, who despite great test scores and grades was told she’d be more comfortable in a trade program, and William, who did not complete his application to his dream school when confronted with an application fee his parents could not manage, both come to mind.

We know that when students receive financial-aid information and coaching, entrance-exam tutoring and guidance in visiting campuses, we level the playing field. We have also seen that when students have the support of an adult who helps them answer and silence a lifetime of voices telling them they’re not “college material,” they can imagine college and they can make it happen. This support cannot stop when college begins. Coaching and support all the way through graduation day seals the deal.

When these students succeed they give us more than feel-good stories about the power of education. These kids are following the surest path out of poverty and will change their families, communities and the country as a result. We need them to succeed and grow their numbers until we reclaim the 240,000 scholars and workers we lose each year. If we can make this happen, these graduates will take on critical work as teachers, scientists, engineers, contractors and journalists, building a rich, diverse 21st-century work force.

Jim McCorkell is CEO and founder of College Possible.

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