While academic achievement and opportunity gap has led to disappointingly low college enrollment and graduation rates among African-American students, we at the National Urban League have found that financial concerns are just as big a barrier.
For nearly a decade, National Urban League's Project Ready program has addressed the academic and opportunity gaps facing urban and low-income students. Now, a partnership between the National Urban League and the CITI Foundation is helping hundreds of students across the country bridge the financial gap to greater academic opportunity and higher education.
In Springfield, Illinois, 18-year old Darion was a chronic truant who wasn't expected to graduate. Now, he's an honor roll student who's applied to three colleges. In Rochester, New York, the demands of 17-year-old Rachael's part-time job threatened to edge out her chances to get into college, but now she's on her way to a nursing degree.
While Darion and Rachael worked hard to qualify academically to pursue their higher-education goals, it's their newfound understanding of how to pay for college that is really putting their dreams within reach.
Nationally and locally, Project Ready has helped students in low-income communities be college and career ready. Since Project Ready was launched in 2006, more than 7,000 middle and high school aged students have taken part in the Urban League's post-secondary success programs in 35 communities around the country
Results from the 2014-2015 program year showed that just over 94% of Project Ready participants were promoted to the next grade without remediation or were accepted into an accredited certificate program or two- or four-year college after high school graduation.
This is an impressive result, considering that almost half of 2014-2015 Project Ready students were receiving free or reduced school meals at school. On average nationally, fewer than 75% of students graduate at schools where 35%-49% of students are eligible for free or reduced school lunch.
But academic achievement and readiness is only half the story, when it comes to low-income and students of color enrolling in college. Studies show that these families are more likely than middle-class, white families to overestimate the costs of college.
They are often discouraged from even pursuing higher education by the daunting price and their lack of exposure to opportunities for success after high school. Even guidance counselors tend to steer lower-income students toward community college because they believe that is all those students can afford, even though private schools may offer better financial aid.
Counterproductively, those students who are eligible for the most financial aid are the least likely to be aware of their options or to understand fully the options presented in financial aid packages. Of parents with incomes under $25,000, three out of four cannot identify scholarships, grants, or loans as sources of financial aid that would allow their children to actually attend college.
This impacts families across the economic spectrum, as parents with annual incomes under $50,000 are about twice as likely to say they need more information about how to pay for college as parents with annual incomes of $75,000 or more.
Meanwhile, employers are struggling to fill millions of job openings that require a college degree or market-ready credential. The CITI Foundation is focused on helping young people to link education goals with leadership skills training, professional networks, and on-ramps to employment to increase the number of low-income youth, ages 16-25, who are able to get a job or start an income-generating business.
Through the National Urban League - CITI Foundation partnership, Project Ready added a new Financial Capability and Asset Building component in 2013 that helps students and families build their financial capability, knowledge, and literacy, with a specific focus on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) preparation, completion and submission.
The Project Ready Financial Capability program also helps students and families understand financial aid packages and weigh offers of scholarships, loans, work-study and grants against one another so families have a solid understanding of the true cost of attendance before committing to a financial aid package.
NUL's Project Ready Financial Capability Asset Building Program is an integrated approach focused on college readiness and post-secondary success.
Specifically, the goals of the Program are:
• To empower 450 high school juniors and seniors and their families each year with the skills needed to successfully transition from high school to college and better prepare them to navigate the financial complexities of adulthood.
• For all Project Ready high school seniors to complete the FAFSA and participate in a webinar series developed in 2014 during the pilot of the program.
• To provide 450 targeted participants per year with small group and one-on-one services, including monthly phone calls, web-based surveys, financial capability resources, informal discussions and other communications to complete college application, review Student Aid Reports, and prepare college essays.
• To create a national and local cadre of trained affiliate staff and youth-serving partners -- high school administrators, parents, colleges/universities, financial institutions, businesses and other community-based organizations -- prepared to address the financial capability of high school seniors.
In addition, each local team will train at least 10 local partner organizations in FAFSA Completion and Financial Capability. A minimum of 40 organizations will receive training by the end of the grant, in addition to the 160 individuals trained directly via webinar and on-site professional development opportunities.