Far too many students in higher education don’t finish what they start. Those who leave the path are more likely to be low-income and first-generation students—many of them strivers who are looking to break cycles of poverty and be the first in their family to cross the graduation stage. For these students, we need to think about how we respond to Harvey, especially because many may see this tragic weather event as a sign. The wrong sign. Our latest Community Insights Report, which studied the learning journeys of more than 4 million students, did some myth busting on the widely held assumption that the main reasons students are leaving higher education are academic. We consistently saw, across diverse institutional types, that more than 70% of non-persisting students were sitting above a 2.0 grade point averages (GPA) when they left. More striking was that on average between 40-45% had between 3.0-4.0 GPAs. What we we’re seeing in the data and in reports on the ground, is that our students are leaving more because of psycho-social adjustment issues and because of life-and-logistic challenges. For many students, especially low-income and first-generation students, adjusting to higher education is not easy. Many students feel like they don’t belong, almost like imposters—that someone soon will discover they don’t belong and rat them out. In many ways, they are justified in feeling this way. Higher education is often a rigged system. Those who come from college-going families know the drill. They are prepared from birth, literally wrapped in their university-logo onesie. They are used to the bureaucracies, with many having attended university-themed prep schools. Moreover, they have aggressive scaffolds (read: helicopter parents) to support them through their challenges. That’s not the case with first-in-family folks. They are often baffled by the bureaucracy, confused by the language, and are sometimes surrounded by painfully non-supportive messages, such as “I told you that you don’t belong in college,” the minute things go wrong. It’s a simply a different world for them—often a world that leads to “paying the price” for college in the worst way. Far-too-often the things that go wrong are basic logistics: housing, food, transportation and child care. Next come college-and-university logistics: financial aid, picking a major, choosing classes, building a schedule that fits with work and family, or even parking. I’ve been in the focus groups with these students where they interpret significant challenges in these areas as signs they don’t belong. For example, I’ll always remember a mother of three returning to school after escaping an abusive husband, who had been amazingly successful in her nursing-program studies. She was tearfully telling me that her financial-aid-package snafu (read: major screw up in our college’s bureaucracy) was “probably a sign from God” that she was supposed to quit. My favorite part of that story however was our financial-aid director’s response: “Gina, I really don’t think so. I’d say the sign from God is how hard we’re going to work to get this fixed.” Amen! Harvey was a once-in-a-thousand-year flood; a weather event that will stick in the national psyche for decades. And it may also represent one of the most extreme life-and-logistics challenges ever thrown at such a large group of students. Close to 500,000 students were impacted by Harvey. More than half of these students would qualify as low income. We cannot let the challenges that will come with Harvey be a sign for any student that they should give up. Rather, the sign for these students should be our response, our commitment to helping them finish what they started! This is why I’m so proud of the Texas Higher Education Community in coming together to form Harvey HELP. The HELP in this program stands for Higher Education Learning Pathways, to signify our commitment to raise resources for emergency aid to help these students stay on, or quickly return to, their higher education pathway. You can read more about this program here. Civitas Learning has jumped into the mix, supporting a large-scale employee matching program for Harvey HELP. If you’re a foundation, association, college, university, corporation, community member, or even a fellow student, you too can help. We need you! Our goal is for striving students to see Harvey HELP as a sign. Moreover, for them to see the passion and purpose of the financial aid directors, advisors, registrars, counselors, faculty, staff and fellow students who will be working through this fund to help displaced or disrupted students as a sign. And we want them to hear our voice. “You were meant to finish. You were meant to overcome challenges, however huge. If you’re willing to do the academic work, we’ll work to clear the way.” That’s the message we want our striving students to hear. If you want to be a part of being that sign and sending this message, please support Harvey HELP. You can visit the GoFundMe page here. Thank You!!
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