Detours on the road to a college degree

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Breyana Floyd left Monmouth College after finishing her sophomore year in May. After a summer internship in Orlando Breyana moved back home to Chicago and is planning to transfer to Roosevelt University next semester. But she struggles financially.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Breyana Floyd left Monmouth College after finishing her sophomore year in May. After a summer internship in Orlando Breyana moved back home to Chicago and is planning to transfer to Roosevelt University next semester. But she struggles financially.

Breyana Floyd is scrambling again.

When Catalyst last talked with her — for our Catalyst In Depth issue on completing college — she was struggling to make ends meet in the middle of her sophomore year at Monmouth College.

Now, after deciding that Monmouth wasn’t right for her and taking some time off, Breyana is back home in Chicago. She’s planning to transfer to Roosevelt University in January but is running into familiar financial roadblocks.

After her grants and scholarships are applied, and with her loans tapped out, Breyana still needs to come up with $1,167 for the semester. There’s the possibility of getting a work-study job on campus, but she knows that there is no guarantee.

“I can’t pull out, but I can’t exactly move forward,” says Breyana, a Chicago Public Schools graduate. “I’m down to the wire, moneywise…. There is always some kind of challenge going on. And don’t even get me started on how I’m going to pay for books.”

The challenges that Breyana continues to face are common among low-income, first-generation college students of color. In Chicago, just half of CPS graduates who enroll in a four-year college end up getting a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a report last year from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Breyana’s story highlights another reality that contradicts traditional notions of college success: for many students, the path to a degree is no longer a linear one. Research from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that more than a third of college graduates will transfer at least once before obtaining a degree. The numbers for students who attend multiple colleges but do not get degree are even higher.

Breyana had originally chosen Monmouth College because she loved the serenity of the picturesque campus and the academic rigor. Monmouth is a private liberal arts college in a rural community about three-and-a-half hours southwest of Chicago.

But she would soon face unexpected financial and social challenges. Even with loans, scholarships and aid, Breyana and her family struggled to make additional payments.

In the middle of her sophomore year, a former adviser from her CPS alma mater, Chicago Academy High School, reached into his own pocket to help her stay afloat.

Then, as police shootings and race became a major national issue, she began to question how well her own college supports black students on the mostly white campus.

“There were a lot of things on campus that were making me uncomfortable,” Breyana recalled in a recent interview. “I felt like I was stuck in a box where I didn’t belong.”

In May she decided to leave Monmouth.

Campus officials acknowledge they aren’t doing enough to retain students of color and say they are trying a variety of tactics to address the problems. Among them: phasing out a discounted tuition rate for freshmen so that students are more familiar with the true costs later down the line; assigning mentors for each freshman; and sending more faculty to get training on how to become better advisers.

“Even if just half of these things work, I think that’s huge,” says Dana Roof, the college’s director of academic support.

Roof helped Breyana think through what type of college might be a better match. At the time, Breyana wanted to switch her major from photography and public relations to something in the hospitality and tourism industry. That major isn’t offered at Monmouth.

She also encouraged Breyana to consider professional internships in the hospitality industry, which is how she got started researching a nine-month internship program at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Breyana says Roof helped her accept that it was OK to change course.

“A lot of first-generation students, they’re carrying a lot of weight,” says Roof. “They have the expectations of their families. They have their own expectations for themselves. In some cases, the expectations of their extended families and neighborhoods, depending on where they come from. That’s a lot of people to have to worry about besides yourself.”

Breyana applied to Disney’s program and earned a spot for over the summer. She moved to Orlando within two weeks of leaving Monmouth.

“I loved it so much,” says Breyana, who worked mostly in a merchandise store. “I was making people happy with the simplest things.”

She left the internship about half-way through it because of disagreements with roommates and because her mother had fallen sick in Chicago.

Still, her time in Orlando solidified her interest in the hospitality industry. She says she’d like to return one day and help plan events such as weddings.

Back in Chicago, Breyana moved into her family’s home in the Austin neighborhood and took a part-time job at a mall while she studied her options for transferring.

She looked at several colleges in Chicago before deciding on Roosevelt University in the Loop. It offered the major she wanted, had a diverse student body and was close to home. Much to her relief, Roosevelt accepted nearly all of her credits from Monmouth and her 3.6 grade point average.

Although Roosevelt is a more diverse campus than Monmouth, its graduation rates aren’t as high. Federal data show that 41 percent of Roosevelt students – and 34 percent of black students – graduate within six years. At Monmouth, the overall graduation rate is 58 percent, and 44 percent for black students.

“I didn’t look at rates,” Breyana says. “At that point I didn’t care. I just knew I had to find somewhere.”

The two schools have similar price tags, although Breyana could save money at Roosevelt by living at home and commuting. But she plans to move into the university’s high-rise dormitories downtown in order to get the real college experience.

“I wouldn’t decide to live at home to go to college,” she says. “I feel like that’s not going to college, it’s like high school. I feel like not only are you learning something different, you’re learning how to be on your own. Live with other people. Interact with other personalities. Otherwise, you stay in that comfort zone.”

Throughout the entire process, Breyana has stayed in close touch with Andrew Johnson, who was an advisor starting her junior year at Chicago Academy High School.

Johnson is a teacher who worked with Breyana and other students through OneGoal, a nonprofit organization that helps students prepare for college, navigate the application process and stay on track during their freshman year. The organization, which works inside 60 CPS high schools, is one of a number of nonprofits that focus on college access and completion in Chicago.

Technically, Johnson’s OneGoal responsibilities with Breyana and her classmates ended in 2014, after most of them has completed their first year of college and re-enrolled as sophomores.

Still, Johnson continues to keep tabs – through Facebook, e-mails, phone calls and text messages — on many of the students he’s counseled over the years. He says he takes a “selfish gratification” in developing and maintaining long-term relationships with students.

“I can be helpful to them in a way that very few other people can because of our long-term relationship and because it’s easy for them to reach out to me, without having to explain context,” says Johnson, who now teaches history at Westinghouse College Prep.

But there are other reasons for staying in touch. “The issues that are going on for students during their freshmen year have not disappeared after the first year,” he says. “I think sophomore year is equally difficult because you can’t see the end goal. It seems callous to not be part of that relationship all the way through.”

Explaining the model, OneGoal officials say the majority of attrition they’ve seen happens before students re-enroll as sophomores and that there is a significant drop in attrition after that point. Some of the major challenges that first-generation college students face as freshmen, such as meeting the academic rigor of the university or feeling like they don’t belong on campus, lessen as students figure out better ways to study, find help in office hours and develop social networks.

Still, some of the barriers can persist throughout college. The feeling of not belonging on campus, for example, can continue if classmates drop out. “Maybe you’ve lost a significant number of students of color from freshman year who were your support or social network,” says Melissa Connelly, senior director of regional college persistence for OneGoal.

In addition, finances can become a bigger issue after freshman year. “Some institutions do have decreasing aid after freshmen year,” Connelly says, adding that some students may have lost merit scholarships because of poor grades their first year.

Breyana is determined to beat the odds. This week she got onto a payment plan with Roosevelt to spread the remaining tuition payments out across five months. She expects to lean on her parents for help, though she’s not sure how they will be able to come through.

She wants to take classes over the summer to make up for lost time, and hopes that she can still graduate as planned in 2017. And she’s trying to stay optimistic.

“I have to do that for myself,” she says. “I refuse to give into that sad spirit. For me, being a person that suffers with anxiety and depression, that’s one of my coping mechanisms. I have to find the silver lining, always.”

It helps to have a support team in her corner. More than anybody else, Breyana is grateful for Johnson, her former high school advisor. “He doesn’t tell you how to fix it, but he’s a sounding board,” Breyana says.

Johnson says it’s tough to watch former students stumble on their paths to college degrees.

“I view her ride through college as bumpy and scary to watch,” he says. “But that’s what college is. She’s been changing, and some of it is what college is supposed to help you figure out.”

  • Concerned Parent

    Looks like she did not get the right counseling, as high schools need ANY college numbers to get off of probation. She needed help with the fit and even more so with the money for her to stay.
    College is NOT needed for every one – I said not needed. There are so many business now that want to hire you fresh and then pay for you to learn while you work and then they want to keep you, especially in tech careers.
    This push on college only makes the presidents of the university rich and puts students in massive debt. Pay for a plumber lately or to get your car tires rotated and aligned? Big price per hour. College not needed there.

    • Andrew Johnson

      1) Why do you assume the school was on probation?
      2) If a student is academically prepared and wants to go to college, why would you not advise them to do so?
      3) If only students who can afford college without difficulty end up going to college and graduating, what kind of society will that produce? And do you want to live in it?

      • Concerned Parent

        It’s just demographics. A general comment as hs are under the gun at CPS. If she came from a selective enrollment school, highly unlikely she would be looking for money for college. So now she has debt and does not have $ to continue. Roosevelt ain’t cheap. Your third point is the point: Why have students in debt when they come out of college and cannot pay it off? Look at how many young white ones turned to teachers for America just until something better came along.

        • Andrew Johnson

          Why do you think that low-income students won’t be able to pay off their debt (assuming they graduate, of course)?

          The TFA comment seems like a non-sequitur. Of course, people often struggle to find good jobs right out of college. But every current analysis shows that, on average, people with college degrees make significantly more money and have significantly higher employment rates than people with less education.

          At current interest rates for a standard load of federal student loans ($22,00 over 4 years), a person can pay about $240 a month over ten years and pay off their debt completely. Over a working lifetime of 40 years, an average college graduate will make about $1.2 million more than an average high school graduate. Seems like a worthwhile investment to me, even if you have to scrape for the money to get through college.

          Advising poor students away from college seems disingenuous. A college education is a viable route to the middle class. There are other routes, as you point out, but their presence does not call into question the sound investment of a college education.

          • Concerned Parent

            Look at the recent studies that show how many recent college graduates are coming out of college in massive debt – in some cases, debt that will take many many years to get our of – if they can. Add that they cannot get jobs that pay well even with a degree, keeps them in debt all the same. College graduate loan debt will be the what the housing-mortgage crisis became.

  • Katherine Miller

    I fear that there are even more difficult times ahead for this young woman. I am not discouraging her to abandon her dreams of earning a college degree, but I do encourage her to think outside of the once traditional “go away to school and complete an undergraduate degree in 4 years” track.
    For many students, that is not an easy task. The fact that she’s maxed out of student loan eligibility after only her 2nd year of college is troubling. And I know of many college students like this young woman who were mislead by colleges and universities into believing that they would receive grants and scholarships to make up for a funding gap. Many of these students had to drop out after the scholarships and grants did not materialize and their schools left them high and dry.
    I don’t believe that attending a commuter college would result in a less than immersive college experience. She could become involved in campus based groups that could provide her with a sense of belonging and could even add value to her career goals.
    Lots of students have to work, either part-time of full-time while attending college. She could get an entry level job in the hospitality industry while taking classes. I would also recommend that she attempt to do informational interviews with professionals in the industry. She might find out that coming into the field with a degree but with little experience might not be the best way to succeed in that industry.
    I would hate to see this young woman become frustrated and possibly more anxious and depressed over her mounting debt and the availability of funding and give up on her dreams all together.

  • DeeGriff

    I wonder what would happen if academic advisors at New Trier, Loyola Academy, Walter Payton, Whitney Young or any number of college prep high schools advised students against attending college.

  • Harry22

    Affordability — Kids get blindsided by the high college costs, lack family resources, and lack decent jobs.

    But if a counselor had told her about Maggie Daley’s After School Matters photography program when she was a sophomore? (Or in middle school, told her about Marwen and its free photography program?)

    Let’s say she signed up for ASM. Met talented professionals, learned a lot, did great work and built a portfolio to show prospective colleges, while earning a stipend. Maybe the portfolio was good enough that she even qualified for some merit aid. Or maybe she decided she preferred theatre. In high school, she has the time to investigate her interests.

    Her high school also offered a dual degree program in conjunction with Chicago Community Colleges. She earned 6 hours of college credit at no cost during her senior year.

    And enlightened CPS changed its school calendar. Now the end of the high school year coincides with the start of City Colleges summer semester!!

    This small change meant she could take two college courses during the summers between junior and senior year, and two between senior year and college freshman year, at no charge.

    By the start of September after graduation, she had earned 18 credit hours for free.

    And imagine that a counselor told her about Americorps’ City Year program. She decided to take a gap year, maybe after receiving her A.A. degree, because City Year pays her monthly and helps her with college costs, while providing excellent experience for her resume.

    This plan gives her time to save money and refine her ideas of what she wanted to do for a career.

    If you have to work your way through college, six years is fast going, and kids should know there is no shame in taking this path. It is to be commended.