Dismantling Systemic Barriers to College Access & Persistence
Did you know that colleges can displace grants offered to students if they receive a private scholarship? Would you be surprised to learn that you can be considered a full-time student and still not have enough credits to graduate in 4 years? If you were asked what the acronyms TIP, FAFSA, COA, EFC, MTG, SAP or MTG stand for, would you be able to respond?
Despite being a college graduate myself, I wasn’t able to answer any of these before AAACF created its Community Scholarship Program. I was uneducated about college persistence and degree attainment, and even more so about the barriers that first generation, economically disadvantaged, and/or youth of color have to overcome to succeed. When I left home for college, my sole responsibility was to show up to class and get passing grades. I didn’t have to figure out how to navigate my way through college because I had support, resources, and finances on my side.
What I did not acknowledge then was that being able to go to college is a privilege that allowed me to remain ignorant to anyone’s story that was different than my own. Now I know that, even in an area that boasts many universities and an outstanding community college, only 54% of high school graduates in Washtenaw County will earn 24 college credits within 16 months of getting their diploma. And even more concerning (and revealing about the systems and structures in place and who they benefit) is that for economically disadvantaged youth that number drops to 28%.
When the Community Scholarship launched, these were the numbers we used to set the long-term goal of 40% enrollment and degree attainment within 5 years of high school graduation. Each time I see these numbers I am in disbelief that 40% could be considered an audacious goal. But focusing on the numbers makes it easy to ignore the people they represent – what they don’t reveal is the grit and strength necessary to travel a path that six out of ten times will end without a degree.
Since 2016, the Community Scholarship Program, which seeks to dismantle systemic barriers to college access and higher education, has awarded over 60 scholarships to intelligent, driven, passionate youth. Each and every one of these young people has challenged me to consider what it would look like if my college experience was the norm. What if all students had an advocate in their corner, money in their bank accounts, and a safety net? What would college persistence and graduation rates look like if students had the space to make mistakes that don’t steer them off course?
These are the questions AAACF seeks to understand through the holistic support CSP offers with a $20,000 scholarship award for multi-year, flexible funding, access to an Emergency Aid & Financial Assistance Program, and a College Success Coach. What we have learned through a 4-year evaluation being conducted by Eastern Michigan University is that both the financial and coaching components are vital to increasing student motivation to persist. The coaches, Marshall Averill and Kendra Agee, provide both academic guidance and emotional support. They do this through phone calls, video chats, text messages, emails, and visits to the student’s college campuses (pre-COVID).
In March, when COVID caused campuses to close and shift to virtual the coaches quickly mobilized and assessed the situation for each student. COVID did not change the challenges CSP students faced, but exacerbated and amplified the present issues. Not surprisingly, lack of technology has been the largest obstacle. Having a slow laptop and spotty WiFi was problematic before, but now made school impossible. Since the pandemic began, AAACF has provided laptops to six students, assisted with rent payments, purchased books, and bought groceries. Our coaches have listened, advocated, and learned alongside CSP students in an attempt to keep enrollment numbers up. They provide insight and inspiration, consistency and predictability, and unwavering stability at a time when life is anything but.
Five years in, the Community Scholarship Program is excited for the spring of 2021 when more than 10 students will graduate. These incredible young people are changing the course of their lives and paving the way for the future of their families. Their paths, which resemble more of a tightrope than anything else, were not easy and having the supports that come with CSP did not give them the luxury to experience college as simply as I did, but it did make a difference. Because when you have people standing behind you, walking alongside you, and encouraging you to get back up when you fall, there is room to breathe. The space to focus less on the balancing act and more on being a college student is what all students deserve, and it is where CSP seeks to make a difference.
AAACF's 2021 scholarship applications are now open!
Learn more and apply by March 2, 2021.