College: the affordability gap

“I don’t even want to go to college anymore.”

The text, from my babysitter Danielle, came one afternoon in late April. A Baltimore City senior, Danielle had just learned she’d been denied a major grant for college because of missing documentation — tax forms her mother had tried to obtain from the IRS for weeks. Now, the door to a major funding source had slammed shut.

The text was heartbreaking because I knew it wasn’t true. An IB honors student and track star, Danielle was voted “most likely to succeed” by her peers and dreamed of becoming an orthodontist.

And she had plenty of options: She’d been accepted to 12 of the 13 colleges to which she’d applied. That part came as no surprise. Danielle’s problem was never getting into college — but always how to pay for it.

That’s because, in many ways, Danielle is a statistic: a first-generation college goer raised by a single mother. She was one among hundreds of kids in her senior class competing for time with the college counselor, with the threat of housing insecurity often looming.

Yet Danielle had always persevered. I was amazed by how much a 17 year old knew about intricate federal grants. She spent her spring break researching dozens of scholarships. But an irregularity on a tax form years ago now meant she was ineligible for a major source of dollars. And it was completely out of her control.

Little wonder she might reach a breaking point and decide this dream of college and dental school wasn’t worth the trouble.

In a city where even graduating high school can feel like an uphill race, our systems and institutions place massive hurdles in front of students — hurdles over which we can’t possibly expect them to jump, even track stars like Danielle.

Danielle is not alone. Evodie, another City schools graduate, should be heading into her final year at Goucher College this month. Like Danielle, Evodie was a superstar in high school — a documentary filmmaker who earned a national award through Wide Angle Youth Media, where I met her; the Baltimore non-profit encourages young people to make themselves heard through media arts.

But the Congolese refugee had little knowledge of the U.S. college funding process. Her school’s guidance counselor ratio was also one per hundreds of students. Three years later, she is $4,000 past due on her tuition bill and may not be able to complete her degree. She, too, feels like giving up.

The disheartening thing is that while Danielle is a statistic in many ways, she’s an outlier in others. She earned a seat at one of the city’s coveted criteria-based high schools. Her sophomore year, she accessed MERIT Health Leadership Academy, a mentorship and college preparation program which offered her Saturday classes, summer internships and SAT prep and helped fuel her dreams. She received individualized counseling from an adviser with the College Bound program who offered expert school advice with an eye on future debt, highlighted major funding sources Danielle wouldn’t have otherwise known about and walked through Danielle’s award letters with her to parse out what the dollars actually meant. And Danielle had multiple advocates in her corner — people like me and other moms she’s babysat for over the years — who could leverage their connections within the city.

Many Baltimore City graduates don’t have those access points. And even still, Danielle’s pathway to financing college — she’s headed to Towson University in a few days — is tenuous and filled with hurdles over which she still must jump. Hurdles that, three years into college, might force Evodie out of the race entirely. So how can we make this process easier? Detailed understandings about unsubsidized loans, grant requirements and complex tax forms should not fall on the shoulders of teens whose parents, themselves, may never have navigated this complex system.

We can do better for our city graduates. And not just with free community college — where about 5 percent of City schools graduates will actually complete a degree after six years, according to the Baltimore Education Research Consortium. In that same longitudinal study, the best outcomes for students were those who enrolled in a four-year college immediately after high school — 44 percent of them earned a college degree.

So how can we ensure an easier pathway for first time college-goers? Debt-free tuition to four-year public institutions via state-financed work study programs seems like a good start. Some may call that “socialism.” But knowing these two incredibly talented young black women, it sounds like the smartest long-term investment our city and state could possibly make.

Maggie Master is the mother of a Baltimore City schools student and serves on the advisory board for Cecil Elementary School. Her email is maggiemaster@gmail.com.

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