College supply list for low-income students: Books, financial aid … a mentor

Low-income college students are enrolling in college in greater numbers – but only 9 percent earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24. Part 2 in the Monitor’s One Caring Person series.

Published Sept. 21, 2016

Luis Perez-Medina worked hard to become the first person in his family to go to college.

For most of his childhood his parents, both Mexican immigrants, jumped from one job to another: server, cab driver, janitor. To break the cycle, Mr. Perez-Medina took classes at the local library, signed on with college access groups, and applied for scholarships. And in the fall of 2013, he started at Arizona State University.

But Perez-Medina soon realized he had no idea how to navigate college life or make the most of his opportunity. His parents, though supportive, could not offer experienced advice.

“When I first got to college, I didn’t know what to expect,” says Perez-Medina, now a senior working toward a degree in supply chain management. “I knew there were resources out there, but I didn’t know how to succeed.”

Perez-Medina’s story, as echoed by first-generation and low-income college students across the United States, is part of the impetus for a shifting conversation around how to close the gap in education, opportunity, and income between America’s rich and poor.

For decades, efforts to make college more accessible to underprivileged youth meant more low-income students enrolling in college.

But enrollment is just the first step, research shows. Completing college is key to leveling the playing field in an economy where three-quarters of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education or training. Dropping out of college could also leave students saddled with debt, but without the advantage of a degree that could help them get higher-paying jobs, researchers say.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that once students get to college, they’re OK, they no longer need the support,” says Kimberly Harris, co-founder and chief executive officer of America Needs You, a New York City-based career development and mentoring nonprofit that serves underprivileged students.

“But they need support at all points of the continuum,” she says. “We’re getting students into college but not graduating them.”

Read the rest on EqualEd, The Christian Science Monitor’s new section on solutions to education inequity.