Pilot Program Seeks To Help Middle School Students Finish College

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Pilot Program Seeks To Help Middle School Students Finish College

by Katie Dick

Drivers on highway I-93 heading north from Boston are hit with a barrage of billboard advertisements each day as they cross the city limits into Boston’s northern suburbs. Signs pitching comedy acts and music performances, luxury watches and athletic gear, jockey for attention amidst the red taillights of a steady stream of traffic. As I rode the express bus home from work one evening last week, one such billboard stood out.

“The US is #12 in the world for college educations. We used to be #1.”

The share of students in the US who complete college is shrinking. Dramatically. The Wall Street Journal reported on it last week here. The New York Times wrote about it last May, and December, and then again in June and September. Everywhere the story is the same. American college students aren’t getting to graduation day. Black and Latino students struggle more. Low-income students even more.

The reasons for the college-dropout problem in this country are manifold. But Nativity Prep, a small but mighty middle school serving boys from low-income families in Boston, is doing something about it After 25 years serving middle-schoolers, the school is tackling college opportunity and completion for low-income boys, trying to ensure that more of its alumni, mostly young men of color, earn their college degrees.

Through a pilot that this Jesuit school in Jamaica Plain calls its Start-to-Finish Initiative, Nativity Prep has begun offering last-dollar aid to college-bound alumni whose families or financial aid packages can’t quite cover the full cost of college each semester. This fall, with the commitment of donors who wanted to see more of these young men finish college, the school began granting up to $5,000 in individual aid awards to graduates accepted to college.

Why should a middle school get into the business of financing college educations?

“While robust academic programs, family support, college counseling, and financial aid all enable students to enroll,” explained school president, Fr. John C. Wronski, S.J, “they don’t always ensure that they graduate.”

“Sometimes what stands between a young man and his college degree comes down to a few hundred dollars a semester. We want to take tuition gaps out of the equation,” says Fr. Wronski. “When there is an unmet need with a college-ready student of ours, and all other options have been exhausted, we are prepared, to the extent that our resources and our supporters allow, to step in and help.”

Nativity Prep’s graduation track record is better than most schools serving students from low-income families: 99% of its alumni graduate high school, and 80% enroll in college. 70% of those graduate. This compares to just 10% of low-income students and fewer than 27% of Black and Latino males nationally. Lack of academic preparedness, difficulty navigating complex college systems, and financial constraints can all derail a student’s dream of earning a degree.

“Nativity Prep has been assisting and advising its alumni along the college path for the past 20 years. Our Graduate Support program deliberately addresses the factors that influence college completion,” explains Graduate Support Director Nora Frias. “We support students applying to some of the most prestigious high schools in New England, connect them to job and internship opportunities, and counsel them through the college process.”

But the road has gotten tougher with the ever-higher costs of attending college. “This is about trying to do more to close the gaps and eliminate the barriers that low-income students face,” says Fr. Wronski. “We have graduates who were able to go to Dartmouth and UMass and Boston College this year with the help of small amount of last-dollar aid. That’s a powerful gift to them.”

And it matters. Everything from life span, to earnings, to civic participation and voting, to violence and incarceration is affected by the earning of a college degree. College graduates earn more, live longer, vote more regularly, marry and send their own children to college more often than college drop-outs do. They are less likely to suffer chronic illness, become victims of violence or go to prison.

Their success, their completion, earns them more than just a piece of paper to hang on the wall. It earns them a better life. And that’s something everyone, including this little middle-school in Jamaica Plain, can get behind.

Pilot Program Seeks To Help Middle School Students Finish College; image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations