March 23, 2023
The following article is from Forbes.
Conversations around college access and affordability in the U.S. typically focus on tuition costs and student loans. But for many high school students—particularly those from traditionally underserved populations—the barriers to postsecondary education tower above the tuition bill they get in the mail.
Basic needs like food, transportation, textbooks, housing security and physical and mental health present additional hurdles to accessing postsecondary education that reinforce existing societal inequities. And another obstacle is less tangible but no less important: Very few students feel they are properly prepared to decide their future plans.
That’s what my organization found in our recent survey of 14- to 18-year-old high school students who come from first-generation, low-income and BIPOC backgrounds. Underserved students are less likely than their peers to pursue any education after high school—in part because they often don’t have the resources they need to choose the pathway that’s right for them.
What information gaps exist for underserved students? Even as someone who has worked closely with underserved populations for many years, it was startling to see the lack of preparedness these students report feeling—not just for their future education paths but for life in general. For example, only 41% of our student respondents said their high school provides a college fair, and about two-thirds have never been offered a program to help them explore careers.
It’s equally concerning that only 45% of students we surveyed even believe that education of any kind after high school is necessary. At the individual level, opting not to pursue a postsecondary education can hinder social mobility, and from a macro standpoint, employers desperately need qualified workers, with 10.5 million job openings in the U.S. It’s essential for the future of the 21st-century economy that we help create connections between postsecondary education and financial well-being for these students that help them take steps onto the postsecondary ladder.
How do underserved teens compare to their peers?
We’ve been surveying teens about their future education and career path for the past three years and decided it was time to dig deeper into the unique barriers and obstacles of the most underserved student populations. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that the immediate college enrollment rate for students from low-income households is 16 percentage points lower than the rate for students from high-income families.
While some data shows the number of Black and Latinx adults with postsecondary educational credentials has been rising over the years, these populations still pursue postsecondary options at a lower rate than the national average. Like their peers, our survey shows that these students are increasingly shifting away from a four-year college, with less than half considering that pathway. Most of them tell us they would prefer shorter, more affordable options, but almost all still feel pressure—often self-directed—to pursue a four-year degree.
As nonprofit leaders, we must consider how we can help close information gaps and drive purposeful change. We must work to ensure that our pipelines to postsecondary pathways are informed by the unique characteristics and views of the population we’re trying to reach.
How can nonprofits help address these challenges?
As nonprofit leaders, we must be hyper-focused on addressing underserved students’ level of college preparedness, ability to meet their basic needs and understanding of the financial impact of their choices, whether that choice is a four-year college, a short-term credential or immediately entering the workforce. The decisions that students make as they leave high school have tremendous consequences on their long-term financial well-being.
The good news is that innovative organizations are already taking a leadership role in driving impactful change. For example, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) recently launched a social impact program in partnership with Fidelity Investments that will provide access to education and facilitate economic mobility for up to 50,000 underrepresented students over the next five years. Celebrities like Travis Scott and Michael B. Jordan and their foundations have also made meaningful contributions that help underserved students pay for both tuition and basic needs to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Investing in these types of programs and institutions—with both financial resources and the experience and credibility needed to truly drive change—is one of the best ways to invest in the futures of underserved students who experience more barriers to entry than their peers. We all must strive to ensure every student is set up for success with the tools they need to make informed decisions about their future and follow the educational path of their choice.
Across our organization, ECMC Group seeks to drive systemic change in two ways: by funding mission-aligned initiatives through philanthropy and investments, and by providing tools, resources and information that help students not only identify their educational path after high school but also understand the costs associated with their choice, enroll and complete their program. I believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, and by addressing issues for this group of students, we can improve outcomes for all students who choose to pursue postsecondary education.
We have an opportunity, and perhaps even an obligation, to better prepare underserved students for their futures—for their benefit as well as the benefit of our overall economy.
By Dan Fisher, president and CEO of ECMC Group