Small dreams for college-bound students

Students at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, N.C.

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Kai Ryssdal: It's technically still summer, but the vacation is over for almost everyone of school age in this country K-12 and beyond.

More people from almost every background go to college today than did so 30 years ago. But if you're thinking ivy-covered halls, think again. From North Carolina Public Radio, Laura Leslie reports some students may be learning to dream small.


Laura Leslie: It's lunchtime at Chapel Hill high school, one of the most academically competitive schools in North Carolina. It's a good school, by any measure, but it's also an easy place for at-risk kids to get lost.

That's why counselors here started the Blue Ribbon program to help push those students through high school and into college. Most of the students in the program are minority kids from low-income families, like Alisha Lee.

Alisha's a senior this fall and she already knows she's going. She says her mother has made that clear.

Alisha Lee:"You're going to college no matter what, if I have to put you down in there myself." I mean, it's one of those things. It's like, I've always known I was going to like, get more or less good grades and go to college, and get into a good college -- I just don't know which good college.

North Carolina Central is at the top of her list, because that's where her mother earned her two-year degree. That alone gives Alisha a head start, according to researcher Danette Gerald with the Education Trust in Washington, D.C.

Danette Gerald" Once a first-generation college student gets their degree, the likelihood that everyone in their lineage gets a degree increases exponentially.

But even with that advantage, Alisha and other low-income students still face one big barrier to college: the cost. It's more than tripled over the past 25 years. State and federal aid hasn't kept up.

And Gerald says many schools are using their money differently, too. Instead of focusing on need-based aid, they're using their grants to attract high-performing students to boost their college rankings.

Gerald: Even if that student has the money to pay for college, they'll woo that student with aid money to get them to go to their institution.

That doesn't mean there's no money for low-income students. But need-based financial aid is more likely these days to be a loan than a grant.

That's a problem, according to Graig Meyer with the Blue Ribbon program. He says many low-income families just won't take loans.

Graig Meyer: They don't have the same perspective that middle-class families have about student loan debt being a good investment, an investment in yourself. Debt has always been bad to them.

Meyer says a lot of these families also suffer from sticker shock. And many don't understand that the sticker price is negotiable. In North Carolina, tuition, room and board at a four-year public university averages about $10,000 a year.

Low-income students almost never pay that much, Meyer says -- but it can still make a bachelor's degree seem out of reach.

Meyer: And that would be another reason why a two-year program would be more attractive to them. What if I can get out for $12,000 versus $40,000? It's so much better.

That's what Samone Ratcliffe is thinking. At 17, she's stylish, self-possessed and smart. She has one of the highest GPAs in her class. Meyer says Samone could easily go to a four-year college, but she isn't sure she wants to.

Samone Ratcliffe: What I've been hearing from people is like, if you go to a two-year college, you can basically get the same out of it as a four-year.

Samone's older sister is the only member of her family to go to college so far. She's in community college, training to become a pharmacy tech. Samone's thinking about doing the same.

Ratcliffe: My cousin, she was telling me about a man who did it, and how he makes like $20 an hour and stuff, and he works in like a little warehouse making medicine and stuff. So that's like, that's what most, a lot of people need.

After Samone heads back to class, Graig Meyer weighs in:

Meyer: Twenty dollars an hour seems like a lot to her. And it's $40,000 a year, and that is a lot to her. But she probably doesn't realize how little $40,000 a year is in the grand scheme of things. And that whole piece that she said about, well, if you go to a two-year college or a four-year program, it's about the same -- anybody who's been through a four-year college knows that's not true. But for some reason, that's a very real perception to her.

For students like Samone, Meyer says, it comes down to a simple choice between prospering later or paying the rent sooner. He's worried that higher education is turning into a two-tiered system: one for big dreams and one for small.

In Chapel Hill, I'm Laura Leslie for Marketplace.

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Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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