CollegeBound helps Baltimore kids become college material

Little things, like test fees, are often the biggest barriers to higher education for low-income students.

I grew up in East Baltimore. Like most kids, I was a dreamer. When I was five, I wanted to be an engineer, not because I knew what engineers did, but because Dwayne Wayne on "A Different World" was an engineer, and he was the smartest character on the show. I learned quickly that dreams can be deferred, however, and that many more do not come true.

When I had to choose a high school, I chose Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School — a school where I could get a good education and learn a trade. One day, after a teacher named Mr. Pryor saw my report card, he walked me down to the CollegeBound office at Mervo. Inside, the CollegeBound adviser gave me a fee waiver to take the SAT, and I left with the hope that my dreams, whatever they were, could actually happen.

In the days and months ahead, my CollegeBound adviser counseled me on the college admissions process, gave me college application fee waivers and took me on college tours. All for free. Through these tours I met a man named Freeman Hrabowski, who believed in me, and who ultimately mentored me through four years at UMBC, where he's the president, and three years at the University of Maryland School of Law, and who continues to mentor me to this day.

I'm now a partner at the Gordon Feinblatt law firm, and I am proud to sit on the board of the CollegeBound Foundation. I have always wanted to thank the donor who paid for my SAT fee waiver. From my experience, it is the "little things" — like the cost of taking a standardized test, a college application fee, or the cost of gas to visit a college — that often provide the highest barriers for low-income and first-generation college students. Major philanthropic gifts deserve the big headlines, but I think they are most effective when applied to these small and surprisingly problematic hurdles.

Twenty-seven years ago CollegeBound was founded to help eliminate some of those hurdles. It started small, working part-time in a few public high schools. Now it is the biggest college-access program in Baltimore City, employing over 25 people, most of whom are college advisers working full-time on site in public high schools across our city.

In addition to the college advising help I received, CollegeBound also administers a $1.5 million annual scholarship portfolio and provides need-based Last Dollar Grants, which provide critical gap funding between a financial aid package and what a family can actually afford. Since 1989, city schools students who receive a CollegeBound Last Dollar Grant have graduated from four-year colleges at 2.5 times the rate of students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. CollegeBound has awarded more than $6 million of these grants, giving 1,800 students the money they need for college. These grants change lives. In the last year alone, hundreds of Pell Grant-eligible graduates of city schools headed to college applied for a Last Dollar Grant. Yet CollegeBound had the funds to distribute only 49.

Today, CollegeBound advisers help students with the big things like where to apply and how to pay for college, but perhaps as importantly, they help students overcome all the little fees and costs that defer so many dreams before they even start. I think of the nearly 2,000 students who received a Last Dollar Grant, and I wonder how their lives were affected by it. If I did not have a CollegeBound adviser, I doubt I would be where I am.

Having such an adviser in every Baltimore City public high school, supported by a major new infusion of money for need-based Last Dollar Grants, is what our students deserve. After all, CollegeBound believed I was college material, and with their adviser by my side, that's what I became.

Alicia L. Wilson is a partner at Gordon Feinblatt LLC; her email is awilson@gfrlaw.com.

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