Postsecondary education can create opportunities and pathways to positive futures for young people. Yet, as demonstrated by The Boston Globe Magazine’s recent piece called The Valedictorians Project, earning a college degree is incredibly difficult for so many talented low-income youth. These young people, many of whom are the first generation in their family to attend college, can face significant barriers at this stage in their lives – barriers that are often overlapping, that may have nothing to do with academics, and that can go far beyond the most obvious issues of access and affordability.
The statistics are daunting. Nationally, only 56% of first generation students attending four-year schools complete their degrees within six years of entering college, as compared to 74% of their peers whose parents have attended college, according to a US Department of Education 2018 study. Even for valedictorians – students who you would assume would have an incredible leg up when it comes to success in college – The Boston Globe found that 1 in 4 valedictorians from Boston’s public high schools failed to get a bachelor’s degree within six years.
Philanthropy has a significant role to play in helping these students overcome barriers and succeed in college and beyond. Effective scholarship and college success programs that address financial, academic, and social needs can help improve college completion rates and open up important post-college opportunities.
In 1999, TPI launched its first college success program on behalf of an anonymous, astute donor who realized that many talented youth face nonacademic challenges and who challenged us to find a solution. When we designed this program, called Janey Scholars, one of the key goals was to address the full array of barriers that can prevent low-income students from completing college. The program provides participants with mentors and flexible financial assistance, as well as convenings and other supports to help the students succeed. Of the 248 Janey Scholars accepted into the program as of September 2018, 167 have obtained undergraduate degrees, and another 56 are on track to graduate – a college completion rate of 90%. The majority of these students are from families in the lowest income brackets in the U.S. and they’re the first generation in their families to attend college. When compared to national averages, this graduation rate is staggeringly impressive!
Janey Scholars has become the model for similar college success programs that TPI has designed for foundations and philanthropists who care deeply about these issues. In the last two decades, we’ve partnered with a growing number of funders to create college success programs that are transforming the lives of young people from around the country. For TPI staff, the opportunity to see firsthand how these programs positively influence individual’s lives is meaningful and fulfilling, and also helps to inform and shape other work we do with our clients. In fiscal year 2018, TPI scholarship and college success programs provided some $5.12 million in scholarships to 798 students on the East Coast and beyond, and we are launching two new programs this year.
While each TPI college success program is tailored to fit the goals of the funder – such as supporting students from specific cities or states, or with particular life circumstances – there are common elements that we have found to be critical to helping program participants thrive and graduate. These elements include:
- A multi-step selection process that includes interviews with finalists to identify those who will benefit most from each program, and who have leadership potential or other qualities that will enable them to make a difference in their communities and in the world
- Intentional timing and calculation of scholarship decisions and amounts to ensure any financial support will not displace grants to be provided by the colleges the students are planning to attend
- Ongoing, one-on-one mentoring to support students making their way through college, and to help them navigate challenges that arise
- Flexible financial support that goes beyond tuition support so that scholars can study abroad, accept a summer internship with a nonprofit, take summer classes, travel home to visit their family over the holidays, and take advantage of other opportunities
- Enrichment opportunities including peer networking, career awareness and exploration, and community service opportunities
Through these key elements and other wrap-around supports, these programs provide opportunities for success to students who might not otherwise have access to them. By participating in these programs, students enhance their sense of belonging on campus, graduate with a reduced loan burden, and are encouraged to pursue their passions after graduation. While the scholarship funds themselves certainly open doors, the self-possessed drive, appetite for knowledge, and courage of each student are critical to making these programs effective, with TPI providing the strategic thinking and expertise needed to manage the process from start to finish. As one Yawkey Scholar put it, “The financial support and moral support provided by the Yawkey Scholars Program and the incredible staff involved allowed me the will and the way to not only attend and survive college, but to truly thrive throughout my college career and beyond!”
We hope education policy and institutional changes at all levels someday make these programs obsolete, but in the meantime, learning and action behind what is needed – and possible – to change lives now has never been more important.