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Opinion

Getting poor students to college isn't just about affordability. It's about access. (+video)

Students from low-income communities need the same mentoring, leadership opportunities, and support through the college application process as their higher-income peers. Strategic partnerships between K-12 schools and local colleges are a key part of this exposure.

By Rick Dalton / November 23, 2012

Allan Grimes, a senior from Central High School, turns in his paperwork for an upcoming tour of colleges organized by The Village Initiative Project, in Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 10. Op-ed contributor Rick Dalton says 'millions of high-paying jobs are going unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the skills and education to do them.' Solving this mismatch means, '[h]elping talented students from low-income backgrounds access college.'

Ned Gerard/Connecticut Post/AP

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Essex, N.Y.

Even with seesawing reports on whether the economy is getting better or worse, one factor remains constant. Many people assume the persistently high unemployment rates mean America needs more job creation. That may be partly true, but here’s a surprising fact: Millions of Americans need good jobs, but millions of high-paying jobs are going unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the skills and education to do them.

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Commentary: Joshua Goodman outlines the challenges facing American schools, and compares them to more successful school systems in other countries.

Much of the discussion about how to address this mismatch revolves around how to make higher education more affordable for children from low-income families, who represent one of the fastest growing demographics in the country.

But affordability is only part of the battle. Too many of America’s children aren’t worried about the cost of higher education because they can’t even imagine attending college in the first place. To improve educational access, students from low-income communities need the same mentoring, leadership opportunities, and support through the college application process as their higher-income peers. Strategic partnerships between K-12 schools and local colleges are a key part of this exposure.

Think of the way the typical college search and admissions process happens for children from upper income households. By 9th grade, most of these young people are already aware of Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and other factors that lead to college acceptance. In the next year or so, they begin receiving direct mail publications from colleges that target full-pay applicants. Their parents and other family members see higher education as a given, and work closely with them throughout the admissions process to make sure they look as good as possible to prospective colleges.

The situation is starkly different for students from low-income families. Due to economic factors, many attend schools with fewer resources, where fewer opportunities are offered to them, and less may be expected of them. Those who do manage to excel academically are still often confounded by the college entrance process – from taking the SAT or ACT, to understanding how to get financial aid, to simply being able to visit colleges to understand what they have to offer. Many live in neighborhoods with few adults who attended college, and without direct guidance, many of these talented students end up tracked for low-skill, low-wage employment for the rest of their lives.

The impact on our nation is staggering. Three decades ago America was ranked No. 1 worldwide in the proportion of citizens with college degrees. Today we rank 12th, and the college-going and college-graduation gaps between students from middle and upper income households and their lower income peers have widened every year since 1980. In 10 years, 20 million jobs will go unfilled because there aren’t enough workers qualified to do them.

Helping talented students from low-income backgrounds access college requires multi-faceted support. Our program, College for Every Student, has forged a partnership between 200 K-12 schools and 210 colleges in 24 states to help these students realize a different future than the one they might have otherwise found. The partnership has engaged 20,000 students from economically challenged rural and urban communities in an effort to boost college readiness, college going, and college graduation. Most students participating in the program do not have parents who attended college.

We begin working with these students as early as the beginning grades of elementary school and support students up through the college application process to college graduation.

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