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Abelina is a Girls Inc. of New York City graduate, attending Fairleigh Dickinson this fall, and majoring in political science

 

"Really, political science? That's really great," I applauded. "When you graduate you can run for office!" Not missing a beat, Abby shot back, "I'm going to run for President. I figure if he [Trump] can do it, why can't I?"

 

The President has inspired, perhaps unintentionally, more than one girl from challenging beginnings to a higher purpose. America, built on the dream of upward mobility, has become a country of a deepening divide between rich and poor. The surest way to narrow the wealth gap is to earn a college degree. Or run for President! 

 

Major universities including Princeton are working to lower the price of admission through a new kind of affirmative action, not based on race, but on low-income status. And Girls Inc. of New York City is doing our part thanks to a generous grant from the Macquarie Foundation to increase the rate of college retention of Girls Inc. alumnae, and ultimately help them to graduate.

 

While > 90% of graduates from Girls Inc. programs are admitted to college, only 70% are still enrolled after two years. When they get to Abby’s stage, a year into college, they start floundering. In expanding our evaluation to see what is going wrong---to track alumnae college enrollments--- we discovered that 30% of our graduates are dropping out of college. Research shows that reasons include economic as well as academic pressures, and competing family demands, especially for those who do not go away to school. While Girls Inc. has done a remarkable job encouraging girls to go to college and be admitted, clearly there is work to be done to address the 30% attrition problem.

 

It should be emphasized that the girls from our programs do have a 70% overall retention rate, which is a good sign, considering that nationally, only one in five graduates (20%) from high-poverty, high schools graduate from college within six years of finishing high school, and the largest percentage of dropouts occur in freshman year  (2017 High School Benchmarks Report: National College Progression Rates). The girls in Girls Inc. programs are all from high poverty communities, in fact, the poorest communities in the city. High-poverty schools have at least 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, which is the case in GINYC schools.

 

High-achieving, low-income students are rare in college. The Department of Education longitudinal study found that slightly less than 10 percent of high schoolers from poorer families had top math scores, compared to 48 percent of those from wealthier backgrounds. Not many people can overcome poverty to excel academically. And we're failing far too many of those girls who do. Students from low-income communities are 7.6 x more likely to drop out of college than students from higher income households, while 40 percent of college dropouts have parents who only have a high school diploma. (College Atlas)

 

The question remains: What happens to the bright, low-income students who did well enough in Girls Inc. programs in high school to be admitted to college? It's not so much that they don't attend college. Many do. As is the case in the GINYC experience, nationally, many are admitted to college. The problem is that most don't finish, settling for less than a bachelor's degree, which of course limits their earning power later in life.

 

Sometimes students try to save money on tuition by attending community colleges, even though most two-year schools have a spotty track record when it comes to helping students graduate. Sometimes students get lost or overwhelmed in a college's bureaucracy because they don't have educated parents who can help guide them along. Sometimes they try to work through school and simply can't balance the demands of a job with their academics. For one reason or another, they don't make it as far as their talent suggests they should.

 

Most see financial problems as the greatest barrier to higher education. But the situation is more complicated than that. Even when students from low-income families manage to cobble together scholarships, loans or gifts, once they actually get into college, they typically find they have a whole new set of unanticipated barriers: academic, social and cultural, as well as their own internal self-doubt (Washington Post, Kavitha Cardoza, First Generation College Students are not succeeding and money isn't the problem, Jan 2016).

 

It’s often not an “academic” problem either. Most students who fail to graduate are derailed by what happens outside the classroom. Often the biggest barrier to graduation is balancing work, family and other commitments with school. Or they drop out when they lack connection to the school community. When they have trouble fitting in, finding their niches, and connecting socially. For students from poor families, guilt over not helping with family obligations is a major issue. If your mother is at home worrying about whether the electricity will be shut off, it's very hard to relish the opportunities of college life.

 

Why don’t many make it to the finish line? It’s complicated. Oftentimes, girls from poor communities just never find their footing, and just don’t feel like they belong. In an analysis of freshmen (first-time, full-time students of traditional age) and working-adult students, who failed to make it to their second years at a broad range of institutions nationwide, academic issues accounted for just a small portion of total dropouts (insidetrack.com).

 

Clearly, efforts to help students to finish college can and should be improved. Girls Inc. of New York City is well positioned to assist in that effort. Because of established trust in student relationships, and experience in overcoming challenges to high school graduation and college admission, GINYC knows what strategies work with this demographic. Our aim is to produce many, many more Abelinas. Move over President Trump! 

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