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LeBron James institute to mentor 'at risk' students through college

On Thursday, the athlete's charitable foundation established the 'I Promise Institute' to support students once they’re on campus, highlighting a nation-wide challenge – and possible solution.

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    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James poses during a NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Independence, Ohio.
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LeBron James’ education program was designed to get “at risk” kids into college. But what happens when they get there? 

Last year, Mr. James’ charitable foundation announced a plan to provide tuition and fees for students who complete its mentoring program and qualify for a scholarship at the University of Akron, near Cleveland, Ohio. On Thursday, the foundation amended its vow by establishing the “I Promise Institute,” an initiative to support students once they’re on campus, highlighting a nationwide challenge to not only help students reach college, but stay there. 

“When we first started this program, I wanted my kids to graduate from high school. But the more we grow as a foundation, the more we find can be done to give our kids the best chance to be successful,” said James in a press release. “We don’t just want our kids to get to college, we want them to graduate from college. And we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to help them do that.”

Recommended: Four campuses where many low-income students are graduating

The university will pay for participating students' tuition. Sprite, one of James' sponsors, will help fund the new institute.

As the enrollment gap widens between rich and poor students, there have been a number of initiatives to improve college entrance rates across socioeconomic lines. But students aren’t out of the woods just because they’ve made it to the quad: The graduation gap for low-income students is even wider than the entrance gap.

Only 9 percent of adults from the United States' lowest income quartile earn a bachelor's degree by age 24, versus 77 percent of those in the top income bracket, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in September. Financial issues often contribute to students' decision to drop out, but balancing jobs and family, and a lack of self-confidence, often play a role as well. 

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that once students get to college, they’re OK, they no longer need the support,” Kimberly Harris, the co-founder and chief executive officer of mentoring nonprofit America Needs You, told the Monitor at the time. “But they need support at all points of the continuum. We’re getting students into college but not graduating them.”

Research shows that first-generation college students tend to avoid asking questions for fear of being considered stupid. Many work full-time jobs in addition to classes to help their families with bills, all while facing increasing tuition costs and service fees.

“There is good progress in high school graduation and college [entry] for low-income kids. Then these enormous financial barriers … just clobber them when they get to college,” Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, told the Monitor in April. “Median family income has been declining at the same time that real college attendance costs have been going up steadily” – a problem for all Americans, and an economy looking to replace retiring baby boomers. 

But there’s good news: some say mentoring can help break the cycle

That's the first approach of James' institute, which plans to provide an on-campus center for tutoring and mentoring when the first participating class, who are currently eighth graders, enter college in 2021. In the meantime, the institute's governing board is researching methods to support student retention. 

"If we want to be ready for our students when they get to campus in a few short years, the work needs to start now," said Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, said in a press release. "For many of our kids, they are the first in their families to attend college, so we want to create a familiar, encouraging environment where they feel safe and supported."

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