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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 01/29/2012

Is college too much for disadvantaged students?

A few weeks ago, my colleague Paul Schwartzman introduced readers to a group of Prince George’s County residents known as “the Seat Pleasant 59.” They were promised in 1988, when they were in elementary school, that their tuition would be paid if they worked hard and got into college. More than two decades later, only 11 have four-year degrees, a consequence of many bad turns, most of them related to growing up in poverty.

Some readers may conclude that most of these children were doomed from the start. Many lacked the parental support, teacher encouragement and personal resilience needed to take advantage of the offer from philanthropists Abe Pollin and Melvin Cohen. Is a tuition promise wasted on such children?

That conclusion appalls educators in the region and across the country who have dedicated their lives to preparing disadvantaged students for college and helping them graduate. I consulted several experts in preparing a list of what does work for such students. The College Success Foundation, for example, used these methods to achieve a 68 percent bachelor’s degree rate among students it helped in college.

1. Work hard on academic skills in elementary, middle and high school. The Seat Pleasant 59 had an adviser paid by Pollin and Cohen to support their schoolwork, but that did not eliminate their academic weaknesses or the flaws in the schools they attended. Teachers often do not ask very much of children whose parents did not graduate from college themselves. Difficult subjects require tutors, and personal energy, unavailable to some students.

2. Build their characters. The most successful students — rich or poor — attend schools and/or have parents that encourage not only study but also values such as persistence and fairness. Some of the public schools that have raised achievement most in low-income neighborhoods begin teaching character even before math. The KIPP charter school network focuses on such qualities as “grit, perseverance and zest,” said KIPP alumni services director Craig A. Robinson. “We call them character strengths, not traits, as we believe they can be developed over time.”

3. Pick the college that works best for them. The prospect of admission to the best-known universities excites teachers, parents and students, but many of those schools cater to affluent students and are not the best for those without solid financial support. Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of the D.C. College Access Program, said her staff steers students to colleges that have admitted many disadvantaged students and have good retention rates, financial aid packages, work study availability and support services.

4. Develop a sound financial plan. Grades and extracurricular activities are important in college admissions. But DC-CAP encourages students to focus with similar intensity on filling out financial aid forms and applications for D.C. government funding and scholarships. They are urged to visit the financial aid office of the college they have chosen. If they get to know those people, they will be in better shape when school starts and they encounter a financial emergency.

5. Find college programs that can help them through rough spots. Colleges that invest heavily in student advisers and reach out to struggling freshmen and sophomores tend to have higher retention rates. Many small things can ruin an education for a student from a family without much money or college experience. An unpaid family light bill, a bad grade or an unhelpful professor can all start a downward spiral that leads to dropping out. One useful tactic is to train students to be what Rodriguez calls “tireless self-advocates.”

The 11 members of the Seat Pleasant 59 who got their degrees should be proud and grateful to their benefactors. But more careful attention to every part of the process — not just the tuition money — would produce many more happy endings.

By  |  05:00 AM ET, 01/29/2012

 
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