Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Addressing College Access

by Daniel Bennett

A new report by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education was recently released. The researchers conducted a poll of more than 1,000 Americans to help determine the public perception of college education. The highlight of the report was a divergence of public sentiment concerning the necessity of a college education to succeed and college access. The results suggest that the percentage of Americans that believe a college education is necessary to succeed has increased from 31 to 55 percent since 2000, but that the percentage of Americans who believe qualified high school students have the opportunity to go to college has declined from 44 to 29 percent during the same time period.

The report suggests that college has become increasingly important, but access has declined. I certainly would agree that post-secondary education (whether vocational, trade or academic) is nearly essential for a successful career and that access is hindered by the upward spiraling costs of attending college, especially for students from low and middle income families. A recent IHEP report examined why qualified high schools students failed to attend college and found that the issues included a lack of encouragement and financial burdens. These disincentives are likely strengthened by misguidance and a lack of knowledge about the college application and financial aid process. But before we go clamoring to the government for a bailout to throw money at the problem (an ineffective approach), let's consider what solutions non-governmental organizations (i.e. the private sector) has to offer.

I recently met with Michael Carter, an outstanding and highly motivated young man, who has started a non-profit organization called Strive for College, which is dedicated to improving college access by developing community mentor relationships between college students and motivated low-income students. Carter's vision is to build a nationwide network of chapters on college campuses that reach out to local high schools to mentor low-income students through the college application, selection and financial aid process. Strive has already established chapters at four colleges (in as many states) and has plans to expand to 10 chapters by the end of the year. This sort of grassroots approach is much more effective (than expending taxpayer dollars on unsuccessful government programs) at extending a hand to the motivated, yet financially disadvantaged, high school student. I look forward to seeing this project flourish in the years to come.

This country's success and ability to overcome obstacles throughout its history has been made possible by innovative solutions from entrepreneurial individuals. This provides reason to believe that the problems facing higher education today can be solved by the same sorts of innovative minds and entrepreneurial spirit, without a desperate call for big brother to ride to the rescue with saddles full of taxpayer dollars.

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