Making College Graduation a Reality for our Most Vulnerable Students

By Catherine Rauseo

In our ever-changing global economy, earning a sustainable wage with only a high school diploma or GED has become nearly impossible. Ninety-nine percent of new jobs created since the recession have gone to workers with some level of postsecondary education. This climate is putting our most vulnerable students at an even greater disadvantage.

Success in the 21st century workforce is especially difficult for students who are the first in their family to go to college and those considered opportunity youth—young people who are not in school or working. These two groups often don’t see themselves as college-going and lack the knowledge about higher education that others may learn from their parents or community. Often from low-income communities, many of these students have left high school to work and gone through a high school equivalency program to earn a GED. Nearly half of students with a GED enroll in post-secondary programs in hopes of building a career and supporting their families. But their road to graduation can be daunting, and most don’t make it. Less than 12 percent of those with a GED graduate from a post-secondary institution.

The biggest obstacles for most of these students come from outside the classroom. Many are juggling school along with jobs and caring for children and aging parents. Some are struggling with hunger and have to choose between going to class or working another shift to put food on the table. Applying for financial aid, housing assistance, or support for child care are complex processes and, without guidance, can prevent students from getting the services they need to stay in school. Course selection can also be a challenge as many students are unsure of the requirements needed to complete college successfully. This can lead to students using loans to pay for courses that don’t count toward a degree.

To truly make our education system more equitable, we must find ways to make getting post-secondary degrees more attainable for all students. That’s why we teamed up with the Opportunity Youth Collaborative to research ways colleges, communities, and the Commonwealth can help remove the barriers many students face. The report, Opportunity Youth: College Success, identifies a series of potential solutions.

First, we need to prepare young people for higher education while they’re still in high school or a GED program. The best way to do this is to allow students to take college courses while still in high school and earn credit for both. This approach, known as early college, has been shown to help students reduce the time and cost of getting a degree, get acquainted with expectations of campuses, and identify skill gaps that can be addressed before they start paying tuition so they can avoid costly developmental (remedial) courses. Above all, this experience can also make getting a degree more accessible for students who don’t think of themselves as college-bound.
Next, we need to coach students on their choices from early on in the process. This starts with assigning students transition coaches to provide guidance on admissions, enrollment, transition, and financing. Coaching should focus on academic and nonacademic needs so that students know what they need to succeed. Regular access to comprehensive coaching—that stretches beyond students’ transition to campus—builds students’ ability to navigate toward a degree.

Perhaps most importantly, we need on-campus supports to help students tackle the challenges they are facing outside school so they can focus on learning. This means centralizing assistance programs and collaborating with social service agencies to help students address housing needs, child care, hunger, and emergency aid.

Addressing these issues can vastly improve students’ chances of graduating. But colleges can’t do it alone. This will require a joint effort between state education agencies, community organizations, and higher education leaders. Together, Massachusetts can make postsecondary degrees more attainable for first-generation college students and opportunity youth, helping to give all students the chance for success in tomorrow’s workforce.

The percentage of opportunity youth is one key indicator the Rennie Center uses to assess progress in our education system. To learn about other indicators and look at progress over time or outcomes for different student groups, check out our interactive data dashboard