For many low-income teens, the traditional path to college success is flawed. They can follow all the rules, stretch themselves with extracurricular activities, participate in community service, meet every application deadline, nail their in-person interview, and ultimately earn a coveted spot in an incoming freshman class. After all of that work, though, statistics still show that they are not likely to earn a degree and are left straddled with debt. According to the Washington Post, 9 percent of the lowest-income students earn a bachelor’s degree; compared to 77 percent for the highest income families. Additionally, about 21 percent of low-income students finish college by age 24, in contrast to 99 percent of high-income students. There are numerous factors that pose challenges for low-income college students, and according to our research, it all comes down to preparation.
Most low-income teens don’t have the individualized support they need to make informed choices from the start, such as how to select the school or future path that is right for them. Every student is different, which means every postsecondary plan also needs to be different. Some people are better suited to traditional four-year colleges, while others thrive in internship programs such as YearUp that provide professional development while helping students start their careers.
Traditionally, school guidance counselors have provided this kind of direction. Due to enormous caseloads and minimal resources in schools that serve our lowest income students, however, their capacity is limited. Most guidance counselors have a caseload of 1:450, and it is almost impossible to give those 450 students the time needed to both discover which postsecondary plan makes sense to them and to take the steps necessary to achieve the goals laid out in those plans.
Under-resourced teens involved with Crossroads are graduating from high school and being accepted into college at higher rates than their peers – and that is great news. We have made great progress as an organization in the area of college access, and our graduates do complete college at a rate higher than the national average. But we must continue to search for ways to ignite the resilience and persistence that will drive their long-term success in postsecondary endeavors and into their careers. If 80 percent or more matriculate into college, but only 50% graduate, focusing on arming our graduates with tools, resources, and the awareness needed to impact not only their ability to access but to persist in college, will lead our young leaders toward graduating and establishing economic independence.
To address this, Crossroads is focusing on improving student engagement and retention in our programs and ensuring our graduates are prepared for success. We have added two College Success Coordinators to our team, who spend focused, high-impact time with teens and parents. They ensure our seniors make informed choices about their postsecondary paths, take the right actions once they get their acceptance letters, and prepare for life on campus as an enrolled student. Each senior works with a College Success Coordinator to complete a postsecondary action plan with specific goals and steps toward meeting them. While most of our teens’ action plans include obtaining a bachelor’s degree, they may also explore alternative education, college transfer plans, professional training, and career planning.
Crossroads College Success Coordinators are also meeting with high school juniors on a one-to-one basis to pre-plan for their senior year and to prepare their parents for what’s coming next, as well as offering more support for recent graduates. Graduates in their first postsecondary year continue checking in on their plans with a Coordinator and work to connect with support groups on campus or in the community that can help them take the right steps in their journey.
Make no mistake, our graduates are already doing amazing things, persisting and pushing forward even when the odds seem stacked against them. But we know there are even bigger and better things that await them, and we need to help them get there. While the concepts of college and career readiness, access, persistence, and success require extensive work and commitment, the results are truly transformative. Crossroads is committed to empowering each one of our youth to unlock their potential and positively impact the world. By changing one life, you can change everything.