Walking a financial tightrope through college

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Marvin Hoffman

Marvin Hoffman

In 2006, the Consortium for Chicago School Research issued a report that sent shock waves through the Chicago Public Schools system. The discovery that somewhere between only 6.5 and 8% of CPS students graduated from four-year colleges (and only 2% of African-American boys) was a call to action. 

Subsequent follow-up reports pinpointed some of the “potholes” on the road to collegedespite the almost universal aspiration, across all racial and ethnic groups, to attend college. There was enough blame to go around, targeting schools, parents and communities, as well as the colleges themselves. And there was enough room for a variety of constructive approaches to improving the track record on each of these fronts, from the creation of freshman on-track indicators that would help raise high school graduation rates, to the establishment of mentoring programs to provide the personal support many students need to keep their eyes on the valuable prize of college graduation.

It is these mentoring programs that I want to focus on because they offer some strong prospects of success for students as they face obstacles that can only be overcome with support beyond their own capacities. The task for these programs is two-fold: getting students accepted into colleges that match their level of potential and from which the odds of graduating are in their favor; and keeping them in school despite the potholes that threaten to derail them. 

In recent years, these programs include:

The Network for College Success—working inside CPS schools to support leadership teams in each school that create a college readiness environment for students.

Umoja—a veteran in the work of leadership development among students, aimed at improving their chances of success as college students.

Bottom Line—a new arrival in town, with an impressive track record in New York and Boston on both college admission and college completion.

Schools like Noble Street and North Lawndale Charter Prep, which have developed strong databases for tracking their alums and brainstorming solutions to overcoming obstacles to graduation.

AIM HIGH—the program I am most closely involved with, built on a unique model of pairing students with teams of mentors from the corporate world who stay with them from their freshman year of high school all the way to college graduation.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather a sampling of the variety of work being done in this area. I am sure there is other valuable work under way of which I’m unaware, and the problem is so monumental that there is room for many more willing participants. 

Bottom line is economic inequity

Whatever the particular design strategy, all of these programs are wrestling with problems that reflect the fundamental inequities of our economic system. The low-income students who represent the vast majority of those in CPS are operating without the safety net that is invisible to most middle-class families—so invisible that they recognize it as little as fish recognize the medium of water that sustains them. 

Much of my work with AIM HIGH involves the almost inevitable financial shortfalls that our students encounter. These shortfalls block their ability to register for classes at the beginning of the term or, most unjust, prevent them from receiving their transcripts when they decide to transfer schools. These debts, often as small as three-figure sums, would be resolved in middle-class families with a call home providing access to a fatigued credit card—the kind that most low-income families don’t even possess. Any new strain on the finances of a student or a family already struggling to provide for basic needs—an unexpected medical bill, a costly car repair, an increase in dormitory costs, an unanticipated medical bill—is sufficient to lead students to drop out or take a leave from school, from which they are unlikely to return.

Colleges themselves must provide help

All mentoring programs have to face the question of how these inevitable shortfalls are going to be addressed. Part of the answer lies with the colleges themselves, many of which have demonstrated admirable social consciousness by seeking out low-income students of color in an effort to diversify their student bodies, but have not provided the resources to keep those students heading toward graduation. 

They have an obligation to set aside the modest sums that will help students who have made good-faith efforts to meet their debts, but have encountered insurmountable obstacles. The failure to do so places these students in jeopardy of leaving school with no degree and a burden of debt that puts them in a worse position than if they had never entered college at all.

In one recent situation faced by a student, the university sent this debt to a collection agency, with which she is now forced to deal, unprepared though she may be to deal with the often predatory practices of these agencies. Heartlessness should not be the trademark of an institution which pretends to play a high-minded role in our society.

These low-income students are a precious resource. They have the potential to bring new skills and commitments to their home communities and to the entire society. The existing mentoring programs can go a long way in accompanying them to their goal, but they need help with the deep-seated financial obstacles that stand in their way.

Marv Hoffman, now retired, was the associate director of the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago. Prior to that he was the Founding Director of the University of Chicago Charter School—North Kenwood Oakland Campus.