ARTICLE

Giving the Gift of a College Education

One of the most powerful gifts we can give our children—for the future of our nation—is a college education. It may, in fact, be the most powerful gift. For so many of our country’s greatest success stories, the golden ticket that launched the inspiring life was the chance to go to college.

One of the most powerful gifts we can give our children—for the future of our nation—is a college education. It may, in fact, be the most powerful gift. For so many of our country’s greatest success stories, the golden ticket that launched the inspiring life was the chance to go to college. But many students are missing out on that gift because their families are unfamiliar with the process of preparing for college or cannot afford the fees associated with college entrance. Some of us grew up in college-bound cultures where the question was not if but where. And for some of our students, whose life circumstances allow them to remain aloft, it will be the same for them. However, for many of our students, especially the 16.4 million children under 18 who currently live in poverty in the United States, going to college is well beyond a dream deferred. A couple programs in my hometown of Chicago are aiming to fill in gaps of information about college, access to scholarships and academic support for highly-motivated high school students from low-income areas. Chicago Scholars is a comprehensive program supporting 280 promising students for a five-year commitment, connecting them with top colleges and universities and guiding them from the college application process through college graduation. Nationally, students with similar backgrounds have a 25 percent college graduation rate. Since 1996, Chicago Scholars has helped more than 2,500 students earn college degrees, boasting a 95 percent graduation rate among participants. What’s the secret? It started with a brilliant idea that turned into a well-run organization with a team of committed professionals who mentor the students and provide them with support and resources otherwise unavailable to these students. It is a model that should be replicated around the country. Another amazing model program is the Umoja Student Development Corporation, based in Chicago’s Manley High School.. Support comes in the form of homework clubs, job shadows and college campus tours. Umoja can also boast of an award-winning spoken-word poetry team. In 1997, fewer than 10 percent of Manley High School graduates went on to college. With Umoja’s support, that number rocketed to 60 percent. When you grow up in a college-bound culture, your family and peers provide lessons, tips and essential guidance about college. It’s like this invisible, powerful web that automatically pushes you ahead. Highly-motivated students who don’t grow up with this built-in system of free knowledge and access are simply not starting at the starting line. "We like to think success is about merit, but it's also about access—and we can change that, if we choose," Karen G. Foley, president of Chicago Scholars, told The Chicago Tribune. Indeed they are. The Chicago Scholars October college fair matched representatives from more than 70 institutions with hundreds of Chicago’s top high school seniors from some of our most challenged neighborhoods. After interviews, many students were offered acceptances and scholarships on the spot. Who are the students? According to The Chicago Tribune article, more than 80 percent were students of color and half came from households earning less than $20,000. By the end of the event, “the colleges had handed out offers of $10 million in scholarships—up from $3.5 million last year.” Tim Schwertfeger, founder of The Chicago Scholars Foundation, summed up the success of this year’s college fair this way, telling the Tribune: "My most iconic moment was seeing this homeless girl borrow a phone and call her mom, screaming 'I'm going to Wellesley.'" Wellesley, of course, is where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to college. Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University.