(Jessica Pliska is the founder and executive director of The Opportunity Network, an intensive, six-year program designed to equal the playing field for high-achieving underserved high school and college students on the road to college and career success.)
The son of a mail courier and a homemaker, Eric Santiago is the first generation in his family to go to college. He grew up in a low-income family in the Fordham section of the Bronx. When his acceptance letter to Columbia University arrived, Eric made history, becoming the first student from his high school to ever gain admission to the Ivy League.
At Columbia, Eric was unprepared for the academic rigor. "I didn't even know what office hours were, let alone how to use them," he remembers. Assigned The Odyssey in freshman English, he found that many of his classmates had already read it -- in sixth grade. He learned to hold his own with students from tony prep schools who wore designer clothing to class while his blue jeans were stapled together. In his last semester, a financial aid snafu almost prevented him from registering for classes. Less resilient students drop out in the face of similar challenges.
Eric negotiated these situations, graduated in May, and recently landed his first job. But this makes him unusual -- only 10 percent of low-income students graduate college. This number is even more staggering when you consider how many more low-income students are starting college.
It's easy to blame academic unpreparedness or lack of financial resources, both critical issues. But according to a recent study by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, "even after taking their demographic backgrounds, enrollment characteristics, and academic preparation into consideration, low-income and first-generation students are still at greater risk of failure" – an indication that "the problem is as much the result of [their] experiences during college as it is attributable to the experiences they have before they enroll." Indeed, while a student's academic or financial problems may seem trivial, the smallest of mishaps can spiral into debilitating problems, no matter how much the student wants to succeed.
That's why, in addition to academic preparation and financial aid, these students need a set of skills not taught in urban public schools, skills like problem-solving and self-advocacy. They need to build professional networks, cultivate mentors, and learn to manage the diversity of their new environments. Sounds simple, right? It isn't.
But it is only by teaching these skills that we will move beyond an episodic approach to education reform in which educators, funders, and policy makers focus sequentially on reducing high school dropout rates, then on improving college access, and finally on boosting college completion rates. Because, let's remember: College is not the final destination.
We need to prepare students with the skills they need not only for educational success but also for achieving their end goals -- including productive and rewarding careers.
That's why innovative new initiatives are working to ensure both college and career success. The Opportunity Network levels the playing field for high-achieving underserved high school and college students by creating access for them to career opportunities, professional networks, and competitive colleges. Our students have a 100 percent college graduation rate within six years, and 85 percent within four.
At the Opportunity Network, we make a six-year investment in our students' success. From the summer after a high school student's sophomore year through college graduation, Opportunity Network students receive comprehensive training in our "Career Fluency" curriculum, which includes career content, professional etiquette, college access and transition, and networks and social capital. That last piece ensures that they graduate with an extraordinary early network of influential people across a broad spectrum of industries.
To prepare for the transition to college, high school seniors go through an experiential college transition curriculum filled with problem scenarios in which they experience the frustrations and fears they are likely to encounter in college and work with their peers to find solutions to those problems. So when they feel that frustration, fear, or isolation on campus, they are able to recognize and work through it, rather than shut down and allow the problem to escalate beyond solution.
Many foundations are overhauling their strategies to figure out the best way to transition from support for college access to college and career success. Here are some approaches they should consider:
Expose students to the college environment as early as possible so they build self-confidence. Help them navigate a mock college campus. Have them learn through trial and error that a problem with their college credits is not handled at the credit union, or to ask the bursar's office for help if their registration is blocked because their government grant "hasn't come through," rather than miss three weeks of class waiting for a check to come in.
Relationships, and the social capital they create, can be game-changers. Eighty percent of job seekers find their jobs through a "hidden job market" —i.e., word of mouth. We need to help students at the high school level cultivate skills to create, sustain, and leverage personal and professional networks, and it starts with summer jobs or internships. Make no mistake: Learning how to build a network is a critical asset in college, one that students can use to find people to join a study group, pursue summer internships, or simply ask for help when they need it.
Encourage engagement and build communities on campus, both of which correlate to college success. Low-income students can feel disoriented at elite colleges and universities. They may feel uncomfortable making friends and getting involved in campus activities. We force our students to confront stereotypes of all kinds. We examine, discuss, and debate issues of race and class on campus, and the curriculum design spurs those conversations to be intense and personal, just as they will be on campus.
This approach requires educators to build the skills that young people need not only for college completion but also for career success. If funders invest in programs that teach students to solve real-world problems, build communities and social capital, and gain the confidence to advocate for themselves, many more low-income students like Eric will graduate and move on to rewarding careers.
And where is Eric today? He's the college success program assistant at the Opportunity Network, where he advises students on how to manage the transition to college.
-- Jessica Pliska