Two powerful trends are rapidly changing the composition of America’s communities. The first is demographic. By 2050, no single ethnic group will be the majority population in the U.S., with non-Hispanic whites projected to account for 47% of the nation’s population. The second trend is the rapid evolution of an economy seeing significant growth in high-skill sectors like healthcare and STEM industries. By 2020, 65% of all jobs in the economy will require the completion of some kind of postsecondary education and training beyond high school. Between now and then, there will be 55 million job openings in the economy, yet at the current rate of growth, the U.S. will fall short by 5 million workers with the necessary education to take these jobs. In fact, the U.S. currently ranks 12th among developed countries in the number of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34.
Embracing these nation-changing forces is critical to the future prospects of a robust American economy capable of competing globally. We must build on our country’s unparalleled and growing diversity by increasing college success for everyone, including in low-income communities of color.
We know that earning a college degree can result in higher incomes and greater opportunities to build assets. For instance, black males with a college degree earn on average, 42% more in annual income versus those with only a high school diploma; for Latino females, the lift in income is 74%. However, in communities of color, many students still fall through the cracks – each lost student chips away at the equitable and educated society we need to ensure ours is an economy of opportunity. Currently in the U.S., universal college success is hindered by three negative trends:
- Low High School Graduation Rates: 34% of black students and 29% of Latino students are not graduating on time. The national figure is 22%.
- Low Enrollment in Selective Colleges: 17% of so-called “high-achieving” students (students with top grades and SAT/ACT scores) come from the lowest-income families and yet only 6.3% of students enrolled in the most selective colleges come from low-income families.
- Low College Graduation Rates: Just 40.6% of black students graduated from college in six years in 2010, compared with a national average of 60.1 percent.
Reversing these trends will require comprehensive programs that nurture college aspirations, promote academic achievement, and empower low-income students and their families with the information and financial resources they need to succeed and ultimately graduate from college.
The National Urban League’s signature education initiative, Project Ready, is designed specifically to prepare black and underserved youth for positive college, work and life experiences. Through a persistent focus on academic achievement, social development, career awareness and college preparation, Project Ready serves thousands of students in middle and high schools and Urban League affiliates across the country. Over the last 7 years, more than 7,000 youths have participated in Project Ready, with 96% of the program’s participants continuing to the next grade on time or getting accepted to college, Project Ready is a proven blueprint for reversing high dropout rates and increasing readiness for post-secondary success, especially among low-income and first-generation college-attending black youths.
Now, Project Ready is poised to expand its focus to include a final phase – securing college success and completion. As part of a roster of initiatives launched by the Asset Building Policy Network, a coalition of leading civil rights organizations and Citi, with funding from Citi Foundation, the National Urban League will work with the National Community Tax Coalition’s Financial Aid U program to support Project Ready students and their families as they deepen their understanding of the best ways to finance their college educations, and ultimately succeed and graduate.
Through this partnership, Project Ready staff and volunteers at five Urban League pilot sites around the country will be able to help students and their families fully understand college costs and the financial aid process, prepare their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) paperwork, and interpret financial aid awards so that students can make financially informed decisions about their college choice and avoid overly burdensome debt. Students also will receive additional financial education and coaching so that they are fully prepared to successfully manage their personal finances as they begin and complete college.
Too many low-income families overestimate the cost of college and underestimate the financial aid available to them. Correcting these misperceptions and increasing the number of successful college graduates from low-income communities of color is essential for both the long-term economic security of our urban communities and our country.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.