Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Future of College Access

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Many college access champions are wondering what the future holds for students looking for help applying to college.  While his campaign didn’t address this topic, President-elect Trump made specific promises to poor whites and urban-area blacks to improve their lives, and promised young people in general a better future.  He’s also expressed concern that the US Department of Education has too much power, and education decisions need to be returned to the states, a point many Democrats admit in private circles.

There are four things President-elect Trump’s administration can do to fulfill these promises, all by the end of his first year in office, while still improving the quality of college access for a great number of students.
  1. Improve Career and College Choices for Poor Young People  One of the  main reasons poor youth don’t get good paying jobs is because they don’t know they exist, or they don’t know how to get them.  A block grant program in Colorado has created 100 new school counseling positions that pay for themselves in four years, and have decreased the dropout rate, while increasing college enrollment and student participation in career training.  All of this is estimated to have saved Colorado $300 million.  Taking this block grant program to the federal level would be a snap, giving power to the states, and giving all poor youth a shot at a better future. 
  2. Provide Mentorships to Young People Who Understand Young People  These same youth are in desperate need of role models, students a few years older than them who overcame the same odds they’re facing, only to succeed in careers and colleges.  The National College Access Network has had great success developing such mentors in many states, mentors that offer sound college advice, as they support the college counseling curriculum developed by high school counselors.  A block grant version of the NCAN model can make the difference between helping poor students get to the next step, and being swallowed up by a life of desperation.
  3. Allow Student Loans to be Refinanced  Too many young people (and not so young people) are plagued with student loans they could easily pay if they could be refinanced and consolidated with other consumer-based debt.  This would give them the chance to get ahead, put a little money away, and use some of it responsibly to make purchases of other goods.  President-elect Trump’s strong connections in the banking industry could be instrumental in creating these avenues.
  4. Develop College-Based Success Partners  When poor young people get to college, they often don’t see anyone that looks like them, or comes from where they come from – and that can make adjustment to college life challenging.  Creating block grants for states to create college-based mentors to make sure low-income students develop the savvy needed to speak up for themselves and make the most of the rich resources of public universities.  A number of college-based mentorship programs exist; culling the best practices and developing a national model would be the perfect next task for a group like Better Make Room.
College access professionals are keeping a keen eye on the futures of undocumented students, financial aid, and the regulation of for-profit colleges, and with good reason.  While standing on principle for these core elements of college opportunity for all, advocates should also realize these four areas offer a place to begin dialogue with the new administration—dialogue that can lead to a better understanding on all sides of the needs of all students, and how college plays a role in meeting those needs.

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