Why College?

Great guest blog today from Richard Barth. Why is it that people who argue college isn’t for all kids have college degrees themselves…..and make sure THEIR children go to college? One Day……

It’s a question I’ve been hearing more and more lately. Over the last few years, Americans have been inundated with news coverage of the high cost of college, and front-page stories of young people graduating with crushing debt in an uncertain job market, living at home and working part-time.

As CEO of KIPP, I travel a lot. Almost everywhere I go these days, people have read these stories. And then they ask me: Why is KIPP so focused on preparing kids for college? What if college isn’t for everyone?

Here’s what I say to them: College may not be for everyone, but every child should be able to go to a school that will prepare them with the knowledge and skills needed for college. A college degree is the most proven engine of freedom that we have, and right now too few students have access to it.

At KIPP, we have 141 public charter schools in 20 states and DC, serving over 50,000 students, with an additional 4,500 alumni in college. Over 85 percent of KIPP students come from low-income backgrounds. Currently, only 10 percent of American students from low-income families are graduating from college by their mid-20s, as compared with over 70 percent of students from high-income families. At KIPP, our alumni are graduating at four times the rate of their peers, and we are working to get that even higher—because we know that a college education can transform our students’ lives.

The opportunity to earn a college degree is crucial for all young Americans, especially those growing up in poverty. Research is clear that college grads have weathered both the recent recession and the subsequent rebound far better than non-college grads. According to a new Pew Center report, US workers with a high school diploma earn just over 60 percent of what college graduates earn.

Reading the Pew Center report, I was struck by the responses from young adults aged 25-32—the Millennials whose post-college struggles we’ve heard so much about. When asked whether they viewed their jobs as a stepping stone to a career, nearly 90 percent of college graduates in this group said yes; meanwhile, among those with a high school diploma or less, nearly half said their work was “just a job to get [them] by.”

And it’s not just about the money, either. Going to and through college opens up experiences and relationships for students, in ways they might not otherwise have access to. At KIPP, we’ve seen that going to college, and graduating from college, can have a transformational impact on a student’s academic pursuits and vision for what they want to do in the world.

In the Pew Center report, almost 9 out of every 10 college grads said that—even with all the money and time invested—their college education was worth it. So, for all the individual stories of struggle that we’ve heard, the very people who are living through the tough times are very clear on whether college matters for them. Yes, they say. It matters a lot.

Demographics should not dictate a child`s destiny. That’s why we believe that every student should have access to a public education that prepares them for college, whether or not they ultimately choose to go. Children growing up in Los Angeles and Chicago and New Orleans and St. Louis and Houston and the Arkansas Delta need equal preparation for success in college and life.

Instead of giving up on college as a goal for underserved students, we should address the challenges that keep them from earning college degrees. We know that the quality of PreK-12 education a child receives plays the biggest role in whether they are prepared to succeed in higher education. But we also need to think beyond PreK-12, and make sure our students are supported once they get to college.

At KIPP, we have learned the hard way that where a student goes to college affects not only their chances of graduating, but also their financial burden. We’ve seen that KIPP alumni are much more likely to finish college if they attend schools with high graduation rates for underserved students. We’ve seen that seemingly expensive schools may actually offer more financial aid, and thus be less costly, than institutions with lower price tags. We’ve seen that kids from low-income communities do better when there are enough other kids on their college campus who come from a similar economic background. And so we have focused on making sure our students and their families really understand that it’s not just about going to college—it’s about going to the right college for them.

At KIPP, we’ve distilled this down into two words: “Match Matters.” We are encouraging our high school juniors to make college wish lists based on data, so that they’re assessing everything that these colleges have to offer. We are working to get fairly scientific in our approach, and we are optimistic that approach will pay off for our students. And we are committed to sharing our best practices with the broader education community, so that we can help move that conversation forward.

We don’t need to add to the loud chorus telling low-income children that they are not college material. Instead, let’s reframe it: if college is the right choice for children of affluence in this country, it’s probably the right goal for children growing up in poverty as well. And then let’s get to work helping our collective children get to and through college.

Post originally appeared on KIPP Blog, June 17, 2014.

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